Theodore Decker The Columbus Dispatch
This is terrible new terrain for Westerville.
The city is not unfamiliar with large-scale displays of grief. Twice during the course of four weeks in 2016, a river of strobe lights had flashed north on State Street, atop cruisers that were headed to St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church for the April 19 funeral of Columbus Police SWAT Officer Steve Smith and again for the May 25 funeral of Hilliard Police Officer Sean Johnson.
Both died in the line of duty, and mourners packed a church said to seat 3,000.
On both of those days, mourners had lined State Street, waving flags and holding signs of thanks as the miles-long processions passed.
But until this week, the people of Westerville have never mourned the line-of-duty death of an officer from their own city‘s department.
Now they mourn two.
Officers Eric Joering and Anthony Morelli were killed Saturday as they responded to a 911 hang-up call. Westerville police had gone to the townhouse of suspect Quentin L. Smith before on domestic violence calls.
This time, police said, Smith fired upon the officers as soon as they entered the townhouse. The officers returned fire. Joering died at the scene, and Morelli at the hospital a short time later. Smith was critically wounded, police said. He has been charged with two counts of aggravated murder.
The deaths of Joering and Morelli are the first and second line-of-duty deaths in the Westerville police division‘s history.
Hundreds lined State Street to pay tribute Monday morning as the officers‘ bodies were taken to Westerville funeral homes. Residents watched from porches, and businesses emptied of employees.
Even the library closed.
“We will be closed today starting at 11:15 a.m. to honor our fallen friends,” said the signs taped to the doors. “We will re-open as soon as staff are able to return.”
On Sunday, Chief Joe Morbitzer revealed that within hours of the shootings, fresh petty cruelties were being visited upon the division by callers who celebrate the deaths of police.
“We have people calling our radio room, screaming threats, obscenities and vulgarities at our radio techs,” he said.
These are the same radio techs who were tasked with managing the unmanageable Saturday, fielding calls to 911, dispatching officers, and making notifications that two of the division‘s veterans were gone.
Similar cesspools of invective festered here and there on social media. Jason Pappas, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9., doesn‘t give that hateful rabble much thought.
“There have always been anti-cop haters out there,” he said. “They‘ve always existed.”
Social media may have made them louder, but Pappas rejects the assertion that their ranks are growing.
“I rebuke that narrative that there‘s a problem between law enforcement and the community, particularly in a community like Westerville,” he said.
He knows that the support seen Monday will persist for days, and also knows of the impact it will have on not only the fallen officers‘ families but on all officers and their families.
“It‘s proof positive that people still know what we do every day,” Pappas said. “It sends the message that not only do we respect you, but we‘ve got your back.
“That relationship is going to continue to grow and exist for years to come.”