ATLANTIC CITY - The day after Christmas, and the day before a funeral in New York City for one of two slain police officers, about 300 people turned out for a rally on the Boardwalk to show support for local law enforcement.
Afterward, the crowd in front of Boardwalk Hall, composed mostly of police, off-duty officers and their families, and government officials, in a show of solidarity marched about eight blocks to the new Law Enforcement and Firefighters Memorial at St. James Place.
John Baker, a retired orthopedic surgeon, said he began organizing the Friday event on Christmas Eve and obtained an events permit, an insurance policy with a $1.2 million coverage limit, and the cooperation of local government officials and the police to hold the rally.
The rally is part of a surge of such events across the nation supporting what some are calling an "embattled police community," after law enforcement-involved killings of African American men and the ambush of the two New York officers last Saturday.
In Atlantic City, the police-involved deaths spawned a protest by about three dozen people this month that tied up traffic at major intersections for more than an hour. The protest started as a prayer vigil at the Stanley Holmes Village and spilled over when sign-carrying protesters marched through the streets chanting "Black lives matter" and "Hands up, don't shoot."
"After all that's happened, I just feel it is the right thing to do in light of what's been going on across the country and with the national media's coverage of it . . . I'm just here to say thank you to the men and women in blue," said Baker of what motivated him to organize Friday's noontime rally.
Before making his remarks, Baker offered a moment of silence for New York Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were shot at point-blank range in Brooklyn as they sat in their patrol car. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, who had a lengthy criminal record, then shot himself at a nearby subway station following the ambush. Before the killings, Brinsley made reference on social media to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, African American men who were killed by police.
With placards provided by the local police union that read "We Support Our Local Police," attendees of Friday's rally listened to speeches from Baker, police advocates, and government officials, including U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.) and Mayor Don Guardian.
"It's just a hard time for law enforcement right now and we can see what can happen with mere words," Police Chief Henry White said. "But we all know that when the chips are down and when society offers us the worst that there is, it's only the police, EMTs, and fire departments that get out there and deal with it. These men and women put their lives on the line every day, and it's good to know that we do have the support of the community."
LoBiondo said he was there to honor the law enforcement community.
"We don't think about their sacrifices and the sacrifices their families make every day. . . . We don't think about it. We just want a community that is peaceful and serene for our families," LoBiondo said.
Guardian said he was impressed by the turnout on relatively short notice and the day after Christmas.
"I think it's ironic that 2,000 years ago, the world prayed for peace on Earth, and 2,000 years later, we're here still praying for peace," the mayor said.
Guardian said police in Atlantic City have been working hard over the last several years to step up community efforts - hosting cookouts, coffee klatches, and pizza parties in the resort's tougher neighborhoods to build rapport with residents.
Guardian said the efforts have paid off, with more tips about crimes coming in to police from the community, and growing trust between police and residents.
Adelia Smith, 63, of Atlantic City, who was in the crowd and was among those who carried a sign in support of the police, said she had family members who were among the first African Americans on the Atlantic City force. Smith said she came to lend her support and "show that support crosses racial barriers."
"All of the law-abiding community supports the police," Smith said. "It's not a black thing or a white thing. Support of police is about supporting the men and women in blue, no matter who you are."
Friday's rally came amid calls by some lawmakers to trim Atlantic City's police force from 330 officers to 285 by March 2015 and regionalize it with Atlantic County's force to save the city $7 million.
The recommendation was set forth last month as part of a report after two days of summit meetings convened here and led by Gov. Christie on developing ideas to turn the city's flagging fortunes around.
Guardian unveiled his own recovery plan for the city this month. Although he was in favor of reducing the city's police force by the targeted number to achieve cost savings, he was lukewarm to consolidating police departments.