SOUTHPORT, Ind. — As part of an annual tradition that falls on the first Tuesday in August, police agencies across the country held “National Night Out” events.
“Most of the time when people see police it’s when they’ve called 911 or it’s a tragedy, so this allows us to just let our hair down, have a good time, and meet people that we don’t normally get to meet,” said City of Southport Police Department’s Chief Tom Vaughn.
“We want a safe community as much as they do, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We need other ears and eyes to be able to jump in and help us,” added Vaughn.
Southport and Perry Township School Police officers gathered with their neighbors at Southport Park as part of the national effort to promote partnerships between law enforcement and community members, while also preventing crime. It’s the department’s biggest community event each year, Vaughn said.
This year’s event, packed with raffles, food, outdoor activities, and chances to interact with area law enforcement, also served as a five-year celebration of life, honoring Southport police Lieutenant Aaron Allan, who was shot and killed on Indianapolis’ south side on July 27, 2017.
The fallen hero is remembered as being a family man, a someone who loved his wife and kids, enjoyed the outdoors, including hunting and fishing, and was always up for a harmless prank that would make people laugh. Five years after his passing, the stories of how Lt. Allan impacted people through his service and personal life, continue to emerge.
“With Aaron, being his fifth year, we really wanted to celebrate his life and what he meant to the community, and this was his favorite event, too,” said Vaughn.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Jim Allan, Aaron’s dad. “To see the support of his peers, the other officers here in the community and then the community, still showing their respect for Aaron, I couldn’t ask for a better day to do so.”
Aaron’s parents told FOX59 the way that the department and community has and continues to honor their son, means so much.
“Aaron wasn’t just a police officer. He was a friend, he was a public servant, the epitome of one,” said Jim. “It wasn’t about bad guys. It’s, ‘what can I do today to help somebody?'”
The suspect accused of fatally shooting the 38-year-old police lieutenant was convicted in his murder earlier this year. It was while Allan stopped to check on the driver who rolled his vehicle, that he pulled out a gun from behind his back and fired 18 times, striking Allan 11 times.
“Sometimes you think it’s been 100 years, and sometimes, you think it was yesterday,” said Vaughn. “Then every time we lose an officer it just rekindles, you know, that fire, pain, and anger that you have.”
Those feelings once again, became a reality that hit too close to home earlier this week, when 24-year-old Elwood Police Department Officer Noah Shahnavaz, also an Army veteran, was shot and killed while conducting a traffic stop in Madison County.
During Tuesday’s event, a moment of silence was held to honor Shahnavaz’s service and sacrifice to his community, just 11 months after he joined the department.
“I’d like for everyone to take a moment of silence for our Elwood officer who was slain this past week,” Vaughn asked of community members gathered at the park Tuesday, before the group bowed their heads together.
Vaughn shared, “For us, it was a way to honor him since we’re not in Elwood right now, but to also let them know we’re thinking about them.”
In the coming days, weeks, and months especially, Vaughn said the community coming together will be crucial to helping support the Elwood Police Department and Shahnavaz’s family.
“I remember the funeral procession because when you hit the city of Southport, there wasn’t an inch between people. It was just thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder and crying with us. I remember that all the time, and for that community, that police department needs them right now,” said Vaughn, who added, “Let the family know, they’re not in this alone.”
It’s the continued support and small gestures of people saying hello or offering a prayer coin to their officers that Vaughn said has helped them find the strength to move forward and continue serving, with their lieutenant close to their hearts each day.
For the families of officers grieving the loss of their loved ones after a line of duty death, there is no one way to grieve or even to begin healing. Jim Allan said he understands that firsthand.
“I don’t know how to tell anybody what to do because I’m still learning how. I miss Aaron every day,” he said. “Keep your family close, pray, take a deep breath and hopefully you can inhale again.”
Jim called these killings, “tragedies that should have never happened,” but knows there is nothing that would have changed the kind of person his son was — always working to help others any way he could.
Giving to others is also something that close friends and fellow soldiers oh Shahnavaz said he did, every day.
When asked how Jim would like people to continue honoring his son, he said, “If you see something don’t just say something. If you have the opportunity and can, do something. It doesn’t take anything to give a helping hand, to show a little bit of kindness.”
Other events across the state, including one held in Chesterfield, recognized the sacrifice Shahnavaz made earlier this week when he laid his life on the line protecting his community.
“Even though as we interact with the community and have a positive event, we know that there’s a lot of people grieving out there with heavy hearts right now, and that’s not lost on us a bit,” said Chief Gary Woodruff with the Lawrence Police Department.
In Westfield, the community celebrated the life of Officer Timothy “Jake” Laird, who was shot and killed in 2004 while responding to a report of gunfire in the 2700 block of Dietz Street on the near south side. Four other officers were also injured and survived.
Jake, who served with the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD), was honored posthumously with the department’s Medal of Honor and Purple Heart. Nearly two decades later, the community continues to honor his service and sacrifice, hosting Jake Laird Community Day.
“It’s a healing for us to be able to make sure people don’t forget the sacrifice that he did make for the community,” said Debbie Laird, Jake’s mother.
Debbie and Mike Laird, Jake’s father, have been a part of the event for more than a decade now.
“It’s a community event. That’s what we want to do, we want to get the community together. It just so happened we were one of the sponsors and Westfield has kind of adopted us. We live between Westfield and Noblesville and we have been friends with these guys forever so it’s important for us to do it. It brings the community together,” said Mike.
The pair founded the Jake Laird Memorial Fund, which holds an annual golf tournament to raise money for various police and firefighter causes throughout the State of Indiana. It’s a way they work to continue keeping his memory alive and making sure people know how much he loved his community he served.
At the start of this year, the memorial fund had already raised and donated more than $1 million to various causes throughout the state.
Like the Allan family, Debbie and Mike are affected every time they hear of another officer killed. Their sons were killed in unprovoked attacks, similar to Officer Shahnavaz.
“It always affects us that way when we hear an officer has been shot and killed. It brings back memories instantly,” said Mike. “It hits home really, really hard. It hits close.”
“I think about his mother a lot,” said Debbie. “My heart breaks for her because I understand what she is going through and wish there was something we could do.”
The Laird and Allan families, as well as Vaughn, said the best way people can keep the memories of these officers who made the ultimate sacrifice alive is, to continue showing support, sharing their stories, and doing good for others.
“I tell everybody this is a real easy job; you treat everybody the way you want to be treated. If you’re broke down on the road you would want somebody to stop and help you and that was Aaron,” said Vaughn.
Vaughn also hopes events, like the ones held across the nation Tuesday, will continue to bridge gaps and bring together communities for positive change and a reduction in crime.
Countless positive interactions have resulted from these events and come to mind for Vaughn. He said a family with several adopted children, who have experienced significant amounts of tragedy and were scared of police officers, have been coming to the event the last three years.