About 300 Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputies gathered on November 8 at Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix for the funeral of the first detention officer in the agency's history to die in the line of duty.
Officer Gene "Jim" Lee died on October 30, after an inmate swept his legs while he was working at Lower Buckeye Jail the day before, causing him to fall and hit his head on the concrete floor, Sheriff Paul Penzone said at a press conference that morning. Lee fell into a coma and died the next day.
For other officers in the Maricopa County jail system, his death was deeply jarring.
"I think we took it for granted before, because it [an officer death] had never happened," Lieutenant Lourdes Hernandez, who was the shift commander at the time of the incident, told Phoenix New Times after the funeral. "My goal is to send them home the way they came — and it breaks my heart to know that unfortunately, this time that wasn't the case."
Lieutenant Hernandez said correct protocol was followed at the time of the incident, the facility was well-staffed, and the response to help after the attack was immediate.
"We've had officers get assaulted before, and they have gone off to the hospital, but they make it back," Hernandez said. "So nobody expected this outcome."
The inmate accused of attacking Lee, Daniel Davitt, previously had filed a sexual misconduct complaint against Lee and other officers that was dismissed a few days before the incident.
Hernandez said other officers stepped in to cover for Lower Buckeye Jail colleagues who knew Lee and wanted to attend the funeral.
"Seeing everybody come together has really helped us," Hernandez said.
Officer Lee, who was 64, entered the Sheriff's Officer later in life — he changed careers after working many years as an engineer.
His friend Kevin Parmenter, a former coworker, said Lee became a detention officer because he wanted benefits for his family.
"I remember him saying all the time, 'Kevin, we're in the electronics industry — I feel like I'm in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and it's 1985 and they're shutting it down,'" Parmenter said at the service, apparently referring to the decline of manufacturing jobs in Allentown. "'I gotta get out of this business and get a new career.'"
"Jimmy, you sure wouldn't have gotten this kind of sendoff if you'd stayed in the electronics industry as an engineer, my friend," he said.
Lee graduated from the MCSO academy in 2014 and worked as a detention officer in several facilities before being assigned to Lower Buckeye Jail, where he spent the last 14 months of his career.
Friends and colleagues who spoke at the service remembered Lee warmly — he liked Goodwill thrifting and was upbeat and soft-spoken, but always enthusiastic when he talked about his family. Almost all of the speakers highlighted his eagerness to do his job, his frequent smiles, and the way he treated both inmates and coworkers with respect.
Many of them also highlighted how how thankless the job of a detention officer could be. Among them was Penzone, who closed out the speakers.
"There's nothing more courageous than to stand in the face of criticism, lies, character assaults yet to carry on this mission for the very people who cast those disparaging statements. That's true courage," Penzone, who said he did not know Lee personally, remarked. "We are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice so that others can be safe. And Jim Lee knew that ... and I'm absolutely confident that he would not have any regrets."
The service ended with a recording of Lee's last call — a ceremony in which, after a law enforcement officer's death, an dispatcher issues a call to the officer, then a second call, then finally announces the officer has failed to respond because they have fallen in the line of duty.
"Brother 2818 ... Brother 2818 Officer Lee ... all units standby for the last call for Detention Officer Lee ... this is a last call for Detention Officer Lee," the call began, a woman's voice crackling through the dark room's speakers.
"Officer Lee, we leave our seats knowing your legacy will be carried on through your wife and children, and all the men and women of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office," the recording ended. "Officer Lee, you are now in heaven. This is the end of your watch."
Davitt, the inmate accused of the injury that led to Lee's death, filed a civil rights complaint against Lee and other detention officers in August that was dismissed days before the attack. The federal complaint, which stemmed from an alleged December 2018 incident, was dissolved after the government ruled Davitt failed to provide sufficient facts.
MCSO has not said whether it plans to change anything about its protocols following Lee's death.
Penzone has said his department is working closely with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to further prosecute Davitt, who already faces aggravated assault charges for allegedly molesting two young girls, for his attack on the officer.
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