CUYAHOGA FALLS — “Hard worker … Loving … Caring … Faithful … Hero.”

Those were some of the words Rey Torres Jr. used to describe his late cousin, Ohio Highway Patrol Trooper Kenneth Velez, who was struck and killed by a vehicle while conducting a traffic stop on Sept. 15, 2016. He was 48 years old and, according to Torres, no more than a couple of weeks from retirement. 

“He was that close,” said Torres. “That close, and unfortunately, we lost him.”

Torres was the keynote speaker at the Cuyahoga Falls and Silver Lake Police Memorial and Honor Guard Foundation’s annual Police Memorial Service Wednesday morning at the Police Memorial site on the Cuyahoga Falls Civic Center Campus. A few hundred people attended, including current and retired police officers and chiefs from multiple communities.

The foundation’s Police Memorial site, between the civic center and the Natatorium, honors deceased men and women who served in either the Cuyahoga Falls or Silver Lake police departments.

Torres said he and Trooper Velez were cousins in “name only,” because their relationship was more akin to being siblings. Torres, who said he was four years older than his cousin, shared stories about the two playing baseball together and getting into mischief. He said Trooper Velez coached youth sports and served as a “mentor” to the children he guided.

Torres recalled the moment he learned his cousin had died. Torres said his wife called and told him, “Kenny got killed.”

“For three minutes, I could not speak,” said Torres. 

In the aftermath, Torres remembered acts of kindness from people who he called “God’s angels.” He recalled a boy who was maybe 7 or 8 years old wrote a note and delivered it to Torres’ aunt’s home and a tearful restaurant employee giving him a hug. Recently he said he was hugged and comforted by an Ohio State Highway Patrolwoman whom he interacted with at a career fair at Lorain Community College, where he works.

In contrast, Torres said he remembered that on social media, mixed in with condolences and tributes to his cousin, were “horrible” comments about police officers. He noted his own supervisor urged him to stop looking at social media. Torres added the same people offering negative comments about police would call law enforcement if they needed help.

“We have to have respect for these men and women,” said Torres as he gestured toward some of the police officers on hand for the ceremony. “They put on that badge and they don’t know if they’re coming home.”

Torres shared a dream he had about his cousin. In the dream, Torres said he was asked what he would do if he could go back in time and do one thing. Torres said he wanted to “rescue Kenny,” but was then told in his dream that the “destiny has to happen,” and was asked “What would you want?”

Torres said when first responders arrived, his cousin had blood in his throat and couldn’t speak and none of his family members were there with him before he passed away. 

“There’s one thing that I want,” said Torres as he choked up. “Can I be there by his side and hold his hand and say ‘Junior’s here … It’s OK, I’m going to stay with you the whole time … I would’ve told him we all love you, and I’m going to stay with you until the end.’”

Police chief praises families of police officers

Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Jack Davis thanked the families of law enforcement officers for the support they provide to their loved ones.

“You let your loved one go out to who knows what’s going to happen,” said Davis as he addressed the families. “But you know that’s what they want to do so you make that sacrifice as a family member.”

“Trooper Velez’s family is here because he made the ultimate sacrifice,” added Davis. “He gave his life for the job.”

Davis said he and his fellow officers “give up some things to be police officers, but the families give up so much and I thank you for that.”

Davis said it is becoming “harder and harder” to find people willing to serve as police officers. In the past, a police officer’s exam would bring 200 to 300 test takers, but now, about 100 show up for the assessment, the chief said.

Davis noted he recently spoke with a man in his 30s that he was recruiting to become a police officer. The man registered for the test, but when the time came, he approached Davis and said he wasn’t going to take the exam because his mother didn’t want him to join the police force. Davis said the man shared that his mom sees stories about officers being killed or injured, and told her son “All I can picture is somebody, some day, is going to hand me a flag.”

The chief said he is “grateful” for both the “brave men and women” who serve as police officers and for the family members who support them. 

Two mayors thanked the officers for their service.

Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters called law enforcement work “a calling,” and said police officers are “heroes in our eyes.”

Silver Lake Mayor Bernie Hovey said when police officers go to work, “they never know what to expect. Only that they are expected to do their jobs, namely, to serve and protect. And this they do with a high degree of professionalism, understanding and empathy.”

Three officers’ names added to memorial

The names of three retired Cuyahoga Falls police officers who passed away in 2017 have been engraved on the memorial wall: Robert E. Peters, Donald E. Sample and Thomas N. Tipton. Peters served in the city police department from 1960 to 1985. Sample was initially hired by Northampton Township police in 1970 and served the township until 1986, when the township merged with the city of Cuyahoga Falls. He then worked for Cuyahoga Falls police from January 1986 to May 1987. Tipton worked for Cuyahoga Falls police from 1980 to 1992.

Retired Cuyahoga Falls Police officer John Sim, who is president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 49, said he worked with all three officers.

Sim said Officer Sample came to Cuyahoga Falls after serving Northampton Township Police for 16 years, but had to retire within a year of joining Cuyahoga Falls after being injured on the job. Officer Peters “always had advice or a story to tell,” shared Sim. He called Officer Tipton “a great detective” who had to retire early for health reasons, but kept in touch with the police department.

“Although these men are gone, they will never be forgotten,” said Sim. “Their names will be remembered every year during this service and will be on this monument for all to remember.”

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.