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Long Blue Line of Police Cyclists Stretches Through Somerville; Police Unity Tour Heads to Nation’s Capital to Honor Fallen Officers

Somerville police officer Vito Spadea, on bike at left, waves to Somerville Police Chief Dennis Manning and other police officers watching the Unity Tour pass through the borough. Credits: Rod Hirsch
Police cyclists pedal through Somerville on their way to Washington, DC Credits: Rod Hirsch
A State Police helicopter flies overhead as police cyclists pass beneath an American flag draped on a Somerville Fire Department truck's extension ladder. Credits: Rod Hirsch
A police officer's helmet is decorated with flags and medallions. Credits: Rod Hirsch
A police cyclists takes pictures of the crowd as he pedals through Somerville. Credits: Rod Hirsch
Signs of support for their police offices were spotted in yesterday's crowd along Main Street in Somerville. Credits: Rod Hirsch

                SOMERVILLE, NJ – Borough police officer Vitorio Spadea, along with hundreds of police officers from scores of police agencies throughout New Jersey rode into town Tuesday, May 9 on their way to Washington, DC where they will join with police from across the country to honor their brothers killed in the line of duty.

Spadea normally rides with fellow Somerville police officer Tim Franks who was unable to ride this year as he is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in a PBA flag football game a few months ago.

                The four-day Police Unity Tour is commemorating its 21th anniversary May 9-12, with police from around the country converging on the nation’s capital to pay tribute to the slain officers and the families left behind.

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The fifth day, May 13th, will be filled by a candlelight vigil and ceremonies at the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial and Museum.

“It’s all about honoring those whose families are now suffering from the loss of their loved ones,” Spadea said.

The 2,000 riders nationwide will help to heighten awareness of the dangers and hazards faced by law enforcement officers, honor those who have died in the line of duty and raise funds for the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial and Museum.

Both Spadea and Franks have participated in the Unity Tour in past years.

Spadea credits Franks for getting him involved with the race, as well as Bridgewater police officer Arthur Akins, a resident of Somerville described by Spadea as a good friend.

                Franks said fellow mountain bike instructors at the county police academy urged him to participate for several years, but there was always an excuse.

                “I’m too busy, I don’t have time, you know,” Franks said.

                That changed when Claude Racine, one of his fellow Somerville police officers died just before the race four years ago. Racine had ridden in the Unity Tour and had planned to ride that year.

                Franks knew he had to ride to honor the memory of Racine.

“That’s all the motivation I needed,” Franks said.

                Spadea watched as Franks rode through town that year.

“I saw him coming through town and it got real emotional watching him and those guys ride through town; I said to myself ‘I’ve got to do this next year.’ ‘’

Franks added, “It’s a real rush, you appreciate the people being out there, it shows there is still a lot of support for police officers.”

In keeping with tradition, Spadea will dedicate his 300-mile trek to fallen police officers, including two from Somerville that were killed in the line of duty 100 years ago.

A memorial erected by Somerville PBA #147 alongside the doorway into police headquarters  memorializes Officer Manning T. Crow, shot after confronting three burglars in a butcher shop on South Street in 1899 and Officer Julius Sauer who was shot by a man threatening suicide in 1917. After shooting Sauer, the man killed himself.

Spadea will also dedicate his ride to two other fallen officers, each of whom he knew.

Spadea will be riding to honor his friend and fallen Watchung police officer Matthew Melchionda, killed in a North Plainfield collision in 2006 when responding to back up undercover officers at a traffic stop, as well as state Trooper Scott Gonzalez, killed in Warren County when responding to a domestic dispute in 1997. Spadea said he knew the trooper when he was growing up.

 Finally, Spadea will quietly honor Racine.

Spadea will be riding the same bicycle Racine had ridden on the Unity Tour. His widow gifted the bike to Spadea.

She told me ‘I still have Claude’s bicycle he rode to DC I think maybe someone would want it.’

“I told her ‘I would love to have the bike,’ ’’ he said.

“It’s in honor of him because he rode the bike and he worked for us,” Spadea said. “Riding his bicycle down, for me, I consider that he is riding with me; we’re riding down together.”

Students at Immaculata High School and Immaculate Conception Schools came outside to cheer on the cyclists as they ride down Mountain Avenue before heading east on Main Street. The cyclists passed beneath a huge American flag attached to a Somerville Fire Department truck’s extension ladder hung over East Main Street.

The riders headed east down Route 28 past VanderVeer School,  onto Finderne Avenue into Manville and on to Weston Canal Road to connect with Davidson Avenue in Franklin, where they will spend the night at area hotels before heading out Wednesday, May 10.

 By the end of Day Two, the cyclists will reach Philadelphia; Day 3, May 11, the destination is Baltimore.  They will arrive in Washington on May 12, Day 4 and converge at RFK Stadium before riding to the police memorial.

“Riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with the US Capitol in front of you, with 2,000 other bicyclists, police car and motorcycle escorts, everybody stopping, watching and waving, it’s incredible,” Franks said.

“I’m not a svelte guy; it takes a lot to finish those 300 miles,” Franks added. “Towards the end a lot of the guys are running out of steam but there’s hundreds of other behind them cheering them on reminding them why they’re riding.

“The guys suck it up; they might not be able to walk for a week afterwards, but it’s all in good humor and for a good reason,” he added.

The ceremony at the law enforcement memorial is a moving tribute to the families of officers killed in the line of duty, according to Spadea and Franks.

They are escorted to their seats one-by-one as the officers salute them. The name of each fallen officer is read off.

“Some guys just can’t handle it, it’s rough, real emotional,” Franks said.

The Police Unity Tour was organized by Officer Patrick P. Montuore of the Florham Park Police Department in May, 1997.

Since then, the annual event has raised over $20 million.

Last year the police cyclists raised $2.5 million.

-         In late 2005, the Police Unity Tour pledged $5 Million in support of the National Law Enforcement Museum.

-         Having completed the $5 Million commitment to the Museum in 2009 the Police Unity Tour dedicated the 2010 ride to the restoration of the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. The $1.1 million restoration project included the re-engraving, coating and sealing of the 18,983 names on the memorial as well as the cleaning of the walls and other memorial improvements.

-         In 2011 the Police Unity Tour became the official sponsor of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s “Officer of the Month Program.” Officers of the Month are honored at a special awards luncheon each May in Washington, DC during National Police Week, and they are featured in the Memorial Fund’s annual calendar. The Police Unity Tour is also proud to sponsor the NLEOMF’s “Recently Fallen Alerts.”

Each cyclist must raise $1,850 to participate in the Unity Tour, according to Spadea, who has raised over $2,000. Some of that money pays for each cyclist’s hotel, food and other related expenses. What’s not spent is donated to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund.

Spadea worked with students at Somerville High School to design a limited-edition brass and enamel medallion.  He sold 300 medallions to raise over $3,000.

“The idea is to spread awareness,” Spadea explained. “It would be easy to ask my PBA to sponsor me for the ride, but by me asking for single contributions it helps get people to know about the ride, what it is about and have them help out.

“They’re doing their part to honor a fallen police officer,” Spadea said.

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