Hundreds of Philadelphia police, fire, and other official vehicles drove slowly through a Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood Friday morning as American flags waved in the spring breeze in honor of Police Sgt. James O’Connor IV, who was fatally shot in the line of duty a week earlier.
His wife, Terri, dressed in a black T-shirt and pants, stood solemnly outside her family’s redbrick rowhouse with their son, James, and daughter, Kelsey. Black bunting had been hung above the doorway.
About 200 neighbors, some wearing Irish-green T-shirts with the words “Philadelphia S.W.A.T.” on the back, gathered with police officers and Fire Department personnel to watch the procession. Balloons in the shapes of blue stars tied to metal fences swayed. Blue ribbons hung from homes.
In normal times, thousands of mourners would have gathered at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to remember O’Connor, who was posthumously promoted from corporal to sergeant this week. But with the spread of the coronavirus and a ban on large gatherings, his services were postponed indefinitely.
Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said by text Friday night that in planning the procession, “every effort was made to ensure adherence to guidelines regarding social distancing. To that end, the procession was short in duration, proceeded without ceasing, and participants remained in their vehicles for the entire route.”
Still, for those gathered in the quiet and tidy residential neighborhood, mourning was a much-needed communal affair, and social distancing and health concerns over the coronavirus were put on the back burner.
One neighbor, Kathy Lamb, 59, said after watching the procession: “It was excellent. They must have had 1,000 cars going around the corner.”
Lamb, who has been undergoing chemotherapy, said she hasn’t been as concerned about the coronavirus as other people and didn’t think about it as the procession passed. “I was just concerned about the sorrow of what had happened,” she said.
O’Connor, she said, was a “nice man, only 46 years old, and being taken away from his family. Comes from a family of policemen.... They were very close and did everything together.”
O’Connor, known by friends and relatives as “Jimmy,” was a 23-year veteran of the Police Department. His family has deep roots in the department and in public service. His father is a retired Philadelphia police officer, and son James, also known as “Jimmy,” is an officer in the Sixth District. Kelsey serves in the Air Force.
During the procession, a police helicopter swirled above as Terri O’Connor watched the police vehicles with flashing blue and red lights slowly pass her home. At times, her daughter-in-law, also a Philadelphia police officer, embraced her.
Sgt. O’Connor and his wife recently had become grandparents when their son and his wife had a daughter. Terri O’Connor’s birthday was the day before her husband was killed, and they would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary next month.
The family issued a statement Friday afternoon through Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 saying: “We will always cherish our memories of our husband, father, friend and hero James O’Connor IV. We also wish to say thank you to all the men and women of law enforcement who participated in today’s ride. It touched our hearts.”
Near the family’s house during the procession, a huge American flag hung against the sky, held up by ladders of two Philadelphia Fire Department trucks. Two black SWAT vehicles drove in front of the house, then white SWAT vehicles, followed by the rumble of Highway Patrol motorcycles. Neighbors cheered. Bagpipes played in the distance, and about 30 minutes into the procession, they started playing “Danny Boy.”
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw rode in one vehicle of the procession, which also included police commanders, city officials, Fire Department personnel, and officers from other law-enforcement agencies.
O’Connor was fatally shot about 5:40 a.m. March 13 in Frankford when he and other officers entered a rowhouse on the 1600 block of Bridge Street, searching for Hassan Elliott, 21, who was wanted on an arrest warrant from a March 2019 homicide.
As O’Connor climbed the stairs, authorities have said, Elliott allegedly fired a rifle through a closed bedroom door and hit O’Connor. He later died at Temple University Hospital.
Authorities say three other men — Khalif Sears, 18; Bilal Mitchell, 19; and Sherman Easterling, 24 — were in the room with Elliott when he pulled the trigger. None has been charged, but all remain in custody as police continue to investigate.