JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A patrolman with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office died early Tuesday after a violent single-car crash on the city's Northside, according to police.
The Sheriff's Office identified him as Officer Lance C. Whitaker, a 17-year veteran of the agency who was assigned to work the Zone 6, which includes the Northside, midnight shift. He was 48 years old.
"We will miss your kind heart and contagious smile. You are gone but will not be forgotten," JSO tweeted Tuesday afternoon.
The patrol car crash was reported about 4:30 a.m. at Interstate 295 northbound and Alta Drive. All northbound lanes were blocked for nearly five hours but reopened around 10 a.m.
Sheriff Mike Williams said the officer was responding to a crash on I-295 after a vehicle had reportedly run off the road near a tree line.
"(He was) trying to respond to help someone else and then finds himself in that position," Williams said. “It's part of the inherent risk that every police officer in the country faces every day. And it's just, unfortunately, hit home here today.”
The sheriff said weather was possibly a factor in the officer's crash, but the Florida Highway Patrol will determine the cause during its investigation.
"If you're going to get hurt in this job, one of the main ways you are going to get hurt is in traffic," Williams said. It's another reminder of the risk that the men, women of JSO take on every day when they come to this job. It's not just a tagline and a talking point. It doesn't get any more real than this ... (It's) a tough day for us."
Rest In Peace #JSO Police Officer Lance C. Whitaker #7656. We will miss your kind heart and contagious smile. You are gone but will not be forgotten.— Jax Sheriff's Office (@JSOPIO) May 15, 2018
End of Watch: 05-15-2018 pic.twitter.com/uN18JF1T5l
Williams later released the following statement:
I am heartbroken about Officer Lance Whitaker's death. His tragic passing in the line of duty highlights the grave dangers our men and women in blue face every day when they put on their uniforms to keep us safe. Officer Whitaker’s oath was to serve and protect those in his community, and he died in pursuit of that mission. My heart goes out to all who knew him and to a community that lost a devoted public servant.”
The loss comes on Police Memorial Day, and this was the fourth Florida law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty in the last month. Highlands County Deputy Williams Gentry Jr., who was fatally shot while investigating a neighbor dispute earlier this month, was honored with a memorial service Tuesday morning.
JSO Director Mike Bruno said the community's heart is saddened by the deadly crash.
"There’s no guarantees. This is one of the weird jobs, much like the military or with the fire department, you can do everything right, and the second a situation stacks up against you, it can cost you your life. There’s not many jobs where you can do everything right and it still costs you your life," he said.
Bruno said officers should be considered heroes because they put on a badge and uniform knowing they might not come back, and they go anyway.
"That’s what these men and women are. They’re heroes and, unfortunately, some of them don’t come back," Bruno said of the officers the department has lost in the line of duty.
A thin blue line banner could be seen above the doors of the entrance to the Police Memorial Building downtown, not far from where a flag was flying at half-staff. Both reminded, not just JSO but everyone who drove by, that a brother in blue was gone.
"The family lost a piece of themselves, but every one of us consider ourselves family with the officer, so we all lost a small part of ourselves today. And it's going to be a grieving process going forward," Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona told News4Jax.
Zona was in Washington, D.C., for the Police Memorial Day ceremony when a member of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department called him to tell him about the crash and that they were working to extricate the officer from his patrol car. Zona said he's thankful for all of the efforts JFRD made to try to save the officer's life.
"(That's a) call you go to bed every night praying that you don’t get. Now, my only job, my only concern, my only thoughts are with that officer's family and to get them through this difficult time," he said. "It doesn't matter if an officer was killed in the line of duty in December or May. It's still the same for us. But I can say that, because it happened today on Police Memorial Day, it's just a somber reminder of how difficult and dangerous our job is."
Zona said he had spoken to members of his FOP and knows it’s been difficult for all of those within the agency. He said it’s times like these when officers show their strength and their resolve -- continuing to put on their uniforms, even with heavy hearts, to protect the community.
"I think that's part of the reason we do the jobs that we do," Zona said. "We believe in service. We believe in each other. We believe in family."
As I stood there in the room when they made the final call of life to my @JSOPIO brother, this became one of the hardest days of my life. God bless you brother. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten. pic.twitter.com/QxUzqeLFnJ— FHPJacksonville (@FHPJacksonville) May 15, 2018
At an active shooter summit Tuesday in Jacksonville, Mayor Lenny Curry expressed his sorrow over the loss of the officer.
"I saw my phone was ringing from the sheriff before sunrise, which is never a good thing," Curry said. "It’s a very sad and tragic reminder that any time a member of our law enforcement goes out on a shift, their family doesn’t know what they’re walking into, driving into. The city mourns with law enforcement, with the family. We stand with them and will do anything and everything we have to do in the days ahead."
Gov. Rick Scott released a statement about the crash, asking all Floridians to pray for the officer's family and loved ones "during this incredibly difficult time."
A memorial area for anyone wishing to leave flowers or sentiments for Whitaker has been set up at the Fallen Officers Memorial in front of the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard.
According to the Officer Down Memorial website, Whitaker is the fifth law enforcement officer in Florida to die in the line of duty this year, and the 54th in the United States.
Atlantic Beach Police also expressed their condolences with a Facebook post. Officer Whitaker started his career with that department.