When Alan Ali heard about the five police officers killed in a Dallas shooting a couple weeks ago, he knew he had to go back to the place he started his 25-year law enforcement career.
“It was just like a calling,” said the Charleston County sheriff’s master deputy first class. “I had to go back, some how, some way.”
His wife was the first to learn of the July 7 ambush on the news, and when she told Ali he immediately called his best friend, a Dallas Police Department deputy chief. He was OK, but he couldn’t talk for long and it wasn’t until the next morning that Ali found out about the casualties.
“My heart just sank,” he said.
Ali joined the Dallas Police Department in 1991 as a patrol officer and eventually worked his way to the gang unit. He went to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office in 1998 and now works on the U.S. Marshals Service task force.
The Sheriff’s Office asked Ali if he wanted to go to Dallas to show support on behalf of the department, and he welcomed it. He drove so he could bring along his 16-year-old son, who wants to be a police officer. They left at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday and made it to the Lone Star state by 10 p.m.
“I had told him all the stories,” he said of his time on the Dallas force. “I also thought it was imperative that he sees this because he wants to go into law enforcement but he needs to see the other side.”
Ali has seen the other side. He was shot in the foot in 2009 while trying to apprehend a bank robber in North Charleston. It never swayed him from doing the job, and the visit to Dallas after the deadliest incident for law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001, didn’t sway his son from wanting to do the job.
Ali took his son to funerals with him; they visited memorials and showed their support alongside officers from all four corners of the nation. He described the experience as heart-warming and heart-wrenching.
“There are thousands of cops there. No one wants to break down and cry ... but when the taps start playing and the 21-gun salute goes off and the flags start waving, you can’t help but get emotional,” Ali said.
The Sheriff’s Office also sent two other deputies from its Honor Guard unit to Dallas to show support. Maj. Eric Watson, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said it’s important for officers to show solidarity and support and connect because it’s a brotherhood.
“When you have death in the law enforcement community, it affects us all,” he said.
Several Lowcountry agencies sent representatives to Dallas, including the North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Summerville police departments.
North Charleston police Sgt. Tess Johnson was one of four officers from the department’s Honor Guard who went. She said their presence in Dallas wasn’t only for the agency but for the residents of the city and the fallen officers’ families.
“For me, it was more to show support for the families. ... They are going to remember that day for the rest of their lives,” she said. “The children are already going to think their dads are heroes, but when they see how many people traveled from all over to be there, how many lives their dads touched and how many people they influenced, they’ll really know they were heroes.”
Johnson said the experience was very emotional for her. She attended two visitations and one funeral and spent most of her spare time at a memorial downtown at the Dallas Police Department headquarters.
“Everyone that put their hand out to shake mine, I hugged them,” she said.
She added that people often don’t understand the magnitude of the danger associated with being a police officer.
“We all do the same job; we know how dangerous it is,” she said. “It’s like a family coming together. It’s really important that we stick together because we know that the fight that we’re fighting every day.”
It’s a tense time across the nation for police-community relations. Less than two weeks after the shooting in Dallas, three police officers were killed in a shooting in Baton Rouge, La. Both police shootings followed the police-involved shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, Minn.
Johnson said it’s important for the public to remember that law enforcement officers are “not the bad guys.” She encouraged more communication on both sides.
Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy Deputy Senior Chaplain Rich Robinson also went to Dallas with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. He said the community support for law enforcement there was powerful.
“I think with the backdrop of everything happening in the country, it was very emotional and inspiring at the same time,” he said.
He described buildings lit in blue and said everywhere they walked, people would grab officers’ sleeves and give them words of encouragement. Robinson said there was one moment that stood out to him at a funeral when the family of the fallen officer walked in and everyone stood up in uniform.
“Just the thunder of people standing up; it was silently overwhelming,” he said. “It just kind of reaffirms, we have our unity to get through. When we don’t have words to work it out, we have our presence to give.”
Robinson and Ali said they thought the majority of the public supports law enforcement, even if it’s not always made apparent. Robinson added that he wished divisive rhetoric would be toned down everywhere.
“We need to heal hand in hand and not across lines,” he said. “Police serve the community, enforcing what the community wishes. If we are in opposition to them, then we start to break down the fabric of our community.”
Ali said he’s always remained positive when it comes to protecting and serving the community, through the good and the bad, and he believes Dallas police officers will, too.
“It will take time, but they’ll get stronger,” he said.
Reach Melissa Boughton at 843-937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.