Address by MIT Police Chief John DiFava at the memorial service for Officer Sean Collier


As prepared for delivery on April 24, 2013.

Members of the family of Officer Sean Collier; Vice President Biden; Governor of the Commonwealth, Deval Patrick; Institute President, Rafael Reif; members of the MIT community and honored members of law enforcement: on behalf of the men and women of the MIT Police Department, thank you for being here with us to honor the memory of our fallen brother Sean Collier.

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote the article entitled “The Crisis.” In this article he created a phrase that lives with us to this day and is often referenced
during times of great difficulty. “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

While appropriate to underscore the tragedy that we faced last Thursday, I believe, with all due respect to Thomas Paine, that the phrase as written does not fully describe the extent to which we as a department mourn the loss of Officer Collier. I believe in this case it should read: “These are the times that try men’s intellect, their hearts and their souls.”

We say intellect because it is so very difficult to understand why such a senseless, brutal act was perpetrated on such a gentle, caring man. We say hearts because our hearts are truly broken and it is a daily struggle to not fall into a state of despair so deep and overwhelming that we do not recognize it for the false comfort it is and from which we will not recover. And it tries our souls, the true essence of who we are, for we feel almost betrayed by the society we have sworn to serve.

As every member of law enforcement knows, there is risk every time we don the uniform.  But does the risk have to result in such devastation?

As I look out on this vast sea of uniforms, so many different styles and colors, I cannot help but to think of the many different reasons why the individuals wearing these uniforms chose this profession.

Many were looking for the job security a career in law enforcement brings, others a little excitement and a break from the mundane.  The ability to belonging to an exclusive group has appeal to some, and others, a chance for perhaps a bit of status.
In my case, I was just looking for a job.  But then there are those few who were born to enter the profession. It is a calling, a vocation. It is a desire to do good, help people and tackle the problems of a modern society.

In a meaningful way, I believe that Sean was one of those few. In fact, at yesterday’s funeral mass his mother told us that he wanted to be a police officer from the age of seven. I was thirty-seven before I knew I wanted to be a cop—and I was already on the State Police fifteen years! His brother shared with us the story of how he was more concerned with a woman in a restaurant than having pizza with his family because she was eating alone. A pretty good indicator of what was to come.

And Sean had a plan and was determined to achieve his dream. Upon graduating from high school he attended Salem State College where he majored in Criminal Justice. While in school he interviewed at the Somerville Police Department and apparently impressed them enough that he was hired as a non-sworn employee. He later attended the police academy as a self-sponsor and paid his own way, with no promise of employment but available for some lucky police department with a vacancy who had no idea of the full potential of this young man, and that lucky department would be MIT.

What made Sean so good? There are many reasons, but I believe that most important is the fact that he was the same person while in uniform as he was out of uniform. His caring and compassion was genuine and without duplicity, and because of this depth of character he was able to achieve a level of trust with people of all backgrounds that was truly remarkable. This was indeed a trait that would serve him well during his time at MIT.

Like any other large entity or organization, MIT has its own set of unique challenges for law enforcement. Its sheer size and complexity as well as its large population add to this challenge. However, it is its diverse population from all over the world that at times needs special attention and presents a unique opportunity for policing. You see, many of our students come from countries where the police are not their friend. Oftentimes they are brutal, corrupt and oppressive. Unfortunately, when many of these students arrive on our shores and look at American law enforcement, they are seeing the police in their own country. Sean understood this right away. He made it his mission, his goal, to gain their trust, confidence and—as we have learned from the many emails we have been receiving from the student body—eventually their love.

He attended their events, joined their clubs, helped them with their problems and was accepted into their hearts. But as Sean’s sister said yesterday, he was far from a nerd. To quote one of our officers, Dusty Miller, “Sean lived life in the fast lane.” I am sure his love of life and that mischievous grin added to his ability to connect with students. I have an email from Sean, one I will keep for a long time, and in that email he asks me for permission to become involved in the local homeless shelter so he could, in his words, “maybe deal with issues before they become problems.” Most of us cross the street to avoid a homeless person. Sean was volunteering to enter their world! This was truly who he was.

My last contact with Sean was at approximately 9:30 p.m. last Thursday night. I was leaving the Stata garage and I saw one of our cruisers parked on the ramp next to the wall. I pulled next to the cruiser and saw it was Sean. I asked him what was up, and he gave me that famous grin and said, “Making sure everybody is behaving, Sir.” I told him to have a safe night and drove away. An hour later I received that call that is every chief’s worst nightmare.

In conclusion, on behalf of the MIT PD, I wish to offer Sean’s family our sincere condolences. But I wish to also thank you for giving us Sean. He left us a legacy and was a shining example of what law enforcement should be. To the MIT community and the Cambridge Police Department, we offer you our profound thanks for the overwhelming help and support, without which we could not continue. To the thousands of law enforcement officers present, thank you for coming: you have our respect and admiration and we wish you godspeed.

And to Sean: you have our undying love and the promise that you will never be forgotten.


Topics: Community, Police, Sean Collier, Special events and guest speakers

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