‘The worst day in Girard’ reinforces risks, dangers, heroism of police work


The initial police call to 408 Indiana Ave. in the typically quiet Parkwood neighborhood of Girard late Saturday night to respond to a reported domestic dispute probably didn’t faze 31-year-old city Officer Justin Leo in the least.

After all, he likely had responded to hundreds of similar calls over the course of his distinguished five years of service on the Girard Police Department.

But the shocking chain of events that rapidly played out at the Indiana Avenue home reinforced the truism that no police work can ever be considered routine. For Officer Leo, that call proved deadly.

At this early stage of the investigation by local and state agencies, details are at a premium, but initial reports indicate Leo and his partner approached a man at the door, engaged in a brief conversation before the man suddenly pulled out a handgun and shot Leo. Eyewitnesses said Leo’s as-yet unidentified partner immediately drew his weapon and returned fire. Shortly thereafter, the suspect was declared dead at the scene.

Two hours later, Officer Leo was pronounced dead at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. In the aftermath of these grisly and tragic events, the police force, city residents and the entire Mahoning Valley mourn a significant loss.

As we mourn, Officer Leo takes his honored spot on the Officer Down Memorial – Remembering All of Law Enforcement’s Heroes compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. Leo becomes the 107th officer killed in the line of duty throughout the United States and the third in Ohio in 2017 to join that honor roll.

His national distinction as a hero cannot be overstated. As accounts of young Leo’s life and service come into clearer view, he certainly appears to fit the mold of an exemplary law-enforcement officer whose life was consumed with serving and protecting the 10,000 residents of the city of Girard with little fear for his personal safety and well-being.

We therefore join the legions in our community who mourn this senseless loss and pay tribute to Leo, the first police officer in the history of the Trumbull County city to be killed on duty.

Sunday night, more than 1,000 people packed Arrowhead Stadium in Girard to take part in a candlelight memorial and vigil for Leo in an emotional display of their appreciation for his service to the city.

Many of them likely shared the sentiments of Girard Mayor James Melfi. The mayor said he had known the officer since he was in the first grade, describing him as a gentle person who really cared about the city and its residents.

“Just a kind human being,” Melfi said, adding, “They don’t come around like him very often.

He also called the preceding 24 hours “the worst day in the history of Girard.”

GOV. KASICH’S CONDOLENCES

Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich also honored Leo on Sunday. In a tweet, the state’s chief executive said, “Public service has no higher calling than those who put themselves in harm’s way. Officer Justin Leo died protecting and serving his community. We extend our prayers and deep condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.”

In the coming days, the Valley can count on additional deserved tributes to pour in to Officer Leo’s family and to his extended family on the Girard police force. A community prayer service in Leo’s honor will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Rose Church in the city. We also anticipate a funeral and a traditional procession will take place at which hundreds of men and women in blue from throughout the state and nation likely will take part.

In the meantime, nothing will completely console those who knew and loved Justin Leo. But they can take some solace in the warm memories of the high school track and basketball player who evolved into a proud man in blue for the city he so cherished. And they can rest assured that his many peers on the city police force will honor his name and service for years and decades to come.

For all of us in the Valley, his supreme sacrifice can serve as an enduring reminder of the daily risks and struggles inherent to police work. It can also strengthen our appreciation for the heroism that his brothers and sisters in blue so selflessly display day in and day out.

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