Police Escorted Funeral Processions Fading

March 23, 2010
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imageATLANTA ? When the police department in Gulfport, Miss., recently ended long funeral processions by limiting them to five vehicles, the news was not well-received by some residents, who saw it as killing a cherished tradition.

“We could either limit the number of vehicles, or not do (funeral escorts) at all,” explained Lt. Brian Smith, head of the city’s traffic unit.

Police-escorted funeral processions for ordinary citizens are a rarity in big cities in the USA, and increasingly so in smaller cities.

Liability and staffing concerns have prompted several police departments in large metropolitan areas to stop providing the escorts. Police in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Miami, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Los Angeles said this week they no longer provide escorts, except for police officers, firefighters or military personnel killed in battle.

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In most large cities, funeral escorts are provided by private companies that contract with funeral homes, or by the funeral homes themselves.

The funeral cortege, a staple of mourning in the USA for generations, is rolling up against modern realities. Concerns about staffing, cost and officer safety forced the change in Gulfport, Smith says. Police were overwhelmed, sometimes working six funerals a day, and some funerals required as many as eight of the city’s 190 sworn officers ? 4% of the force.

“In some cases, we would have an entire section without protection,” he says. A five-vehicle procession can be handled by a single officer.

There are also liability concerns. Courts in Tennessee and Florida have found that police and funeral homes that provide escorts for funeral processions can be held liable for crashes that occur during the processions.

In most states, the lead vehicle in a funeral procession must obey traffic signals and stop signs, but other vehicles are not required to do so. Still, funeralgoers all over the USA are getting cited by red-light cameras for running red lights while a part of a funeral procession. The Georgia House of Representatives is considering a law that would require camera companies to include on citations a box saying the vehicle owner was part of a funeral procession when the violation occurred.

“There are cases where you legally run a red light. The most prominent is a funeral procession,” says Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Cassville Republican.

In some places, the practice of motorists respectfully pulling over to the side of the road as a funeral procession passed, has passed on, too. In several instances in recent months ? including in Memphis and Houston ? funeral escorts on motorcycles have been hurt by drivers attempting to cut through processions. And each year, motorists around country are hurt or killed in wrecks involving funeral processions.

Still, some smaller communities have managed to hang on to the practice of police escorts for funerals. “We do it on a case-by-case basis,” says police Sgt. Curtis Bristol of Charlotte, Mich., which has a population of about 9,000.

“Usually, the case depends upon the size of the funeral. If we have a situation, and it’s usually with younger people, where a lot of people show up and it’s more of a traffic problem, we would usually do it. If it’s just a small funeral, we don’t do it every time.”

One big-city exception to police funeral escorts is Chicago, which still offers “police escorts for funeral services when the need arises, usually on the occasion of large crowds that necessitate police presence for public safety reasons,” according to the Chicago Police Department Office of News Affairs.

Funeral processions are rarely seen at all in Las Vegas. “There’s nothing prohibiting them, it’s just that the public is informed that if they have one, they have to obey all stop signs and traffic laws,” says Officer Marcus Martin of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Some communities that do still provide escorts charge for the service.

In Charlotte, police escorts for funeral processions are provided by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office at a cost of $150 per escort, says Julia Rush, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. She says the sheriff’s office provides two vehicles per escort, and covered 1,002 processions in 2009, about 2.7 per day.

Randall Earl of the National Funeral Directors Association, says his funeral homes in Decatur and Cerro Gordo, Ill., provide their own escorts. “We are permitted to use amber or yellow lights on our lead cars,” he says.

Earl, who has been in the funeral business for 40 years, says he has seen respect for corteges fall away over the years. “Years ago, everyone pulled to the side of the road and stopped when they saw a procession coming,” he says. “That tended to go by the wayside.

“I’ve noticed in the past few years, though, that there are more people doing that. I think part of it is because of the war, just respect for fallen soldiers.”

Photo By: Shari Vialpando, Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News, via AP

Source: USA Today

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