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A Bright Light Goes Out

But the glow and warmth remain

Sacramento State community service officers were among those who gathered for a vigil at the University for Tara O’Sullivan after she was shot to death in the line of duty as a Sacramento Police officer. Photos by Rob Neep and Jessica Vernone
"She wanted to be able to better understand and serve the most vulnerable communities. Tara wanted to make a difference where it counted the most and work toward breaking the generational abuse and violence that exist in impoverished communities."

Two days after her friend Tara O'Sullivan was killed, Alana Alvarez found a plastic police badge, a child's toy, left behind on a sidewalk.

"Seeing that little badge gave me chills but warmed my heart tremendously," Alvarez says. "I thought to myself, ‘Tara will be our angel forever, and she's always watching over us.' "

Officer Tara Christina O'Sullivan, badge No. 349, was 26 years old when she became the first Sacramento Police officer to be killed in the line of duty since William Bean Jr. was fatally shot during a traffic stop in February 1999.

Her death devastated friends and family and left Sacramento State - where she had developed into a leader and her dream of being a police officer took shape - shaken and heartbroken.

O'Sullivan was among the first four students, and the only woman in the group, to graduate from the University's groundbreaking LECS (Law Enforcement Candidate Scholars) program.

In her LECS application, O'Sullivan wrote: "I want to better the city I live in for those around me. I want to be the one to help others who cannot help themselves. I want to mold the way for future law enforcement."

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

11:43 a.m. - Sacramento Police Department (SPD) dispatch receives a call about a domestic disturbance on Esperanza Drive. Officers make contact with the woman involved.

5:41 p.m. - Officers stand by as the woman arrives to gather her belongings from a house on Redwood Avenue in North Sacramento.

6:10 p.m. - A man barricaded in the house fires a high-powered rifle at the officers, hitting O'Sullivan with several rounds, leaving her badly wounded and exposed. The man keeps shooting, preventing officers from helping her.

6:54 p.m. - Reinforcements arrive with an armored rescue vehicle and remove O'Sullivan from the line of fire.

6:59 p.m. - She is transported to UC Davis Medical Center, where she dies.

1:54 a.m. June 20 - The gunman surrenders

The community college transfer graduated from Sac State in December 2017 with a degree in Child Development. She decorated her Commencement mortarboard with "SPD Recruit O'Sullivan" and a glittery four-leaf clover.

The Sacramento Police Department hired her as a community service officer in January 2018. She entered the academy the following July and graduated Dec. 20, 2018.

Six months later, almost to the day, O'Sullivan and her training partner were dispatched to the Redwood Avenue house, sent there to protect a possible victim of domestic violence.

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen got the June 19 call from Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg as he headed to dinner with other CSU leaders.

"I looked down and thought, ‘Why is the mayor calling me?' He knew that I knew her. It was an absolute shock," Nelsen says. "It was a hard call to take."

SPD Chief Daniel Hahn was in Mexico, vacationing with his family, when he got a text from police headquarters.

"At first, it was just that an officer had been shot, not the injuries nor the name. It was concerning, and I hoped it wasn't a significant injury," Hahn says. "Updates were limited, because they were in the middle of it.

"Eventually, I got her name, and my heart sank. She was brand-new to the department and such an awesome person. It was a pretty bad night. I got a plane home with my family early the next morning."

Sorrow tugged at the community during the evening four days later, on a balmy Sunday, when a vigil originally planned for LECS students near Sac State's Studio Theatre grew dramatically. Law enforcement personnel, University students, faculty and staff, and members of the community at large swelled the ranks of mourners to about 500 people, all there to show love and respect for O'Sullivan.

One of the most powerful moments was the arrival of dozens of female law enforcement officers advancing arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity.

"Tara will never, ever be forgotten by the people ofSacramento," Steinberg told the crowd.

A tearful Nelsen addressed O'Sullivan's parents, Kelley and Denis: "Thank you for raising a true hero," he said. To the LECS students, Nelsen said, "We are proud of you. You have a role model. Live up to her. Represent the best of her.

"I don't have the right to say, ‘We've got it from here,' " Nelsen continued, "but a lot of people out there do have it from here, for her. What I do have the right to say is - and what she did with me many times - Stingers Up!"

People who loved Tara O'Sullivan and knew her at Sacramento State recall a sassy, compassionate, and driven young woman.

"Every day, she trained mentally and physically to become a cop," says Alana Alvarez, an Economics major, who found the plastic badge. She and O'Sullivan became friends while working as student-servers at Epicure Restaurant on campus.

Remembering Tara | You can help

Sacramento State is remembering O'Sullivan with a legacy scholarship for LECS students in her name. And University Enterprises Inc. (UEI), which operates Epicure Restaurant and Catering, where O'Sullivan worked as a student, donated $1,000 to have seat D-5 in Sac State's new Planetarium dedicated to her memory.

"You see benches and bricks as memorials, but the Planetarium is something new and fresh and young, and I thought, that's where you go to acknowledge the loss of a student such as Tara," said James Martin, Epicure's event coordinator.

"We decided to take a judo class together," Alvarez says. "She had broken her wrist, but being the tough girl that she was, it didn't hinder her from performing judo moves on me.

"She'd throw me onto the ground, put me in chokeholds, and continually show her perseverance to become a police officer."

Andrew Panger '18 (Economics), another friend from Epicure and beyond, remembers O'Sullivan's generosity and playfulness.

"She always helped other servers when we were swamped and, during the slow hours, she always was on the winning team of whatever guessing game we played," Panger says. "She also seemed to carry more plates than I did, even though she had the cast on her arm. I still don't know how that was possible.

"She spoke to hearing-impaired customers in American Sign Language. And she may or may not have shown the wait staff how to handcuff people ‘the police way.' "

Panger says O'Sullivan provided a shoulder to lean on and made other people feel welcomed and included.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Timothy Blocker '17 (Criminal Justice) graduated from LECS with O'Sullivan, who, he says, continues to inspire him.

"She knew that people were failing the practice tests for the (police) academy," he says, "so Tara held study sessions at her house and invited everyone from LECS into her home. She was like the mom of the LECS program, looking out for everyone. She had such a big heart.

"I am going to work hard to be the best law enforcement officer that I can be, just like she did. She was an inspiration to me and everyone who ever met her. I will continue to serve in law enforcement with pride and to honor her for the rest of my life."

Shinder Gill, an adjunct professor of Child Development, taught O'Sullivan in two classes.

"I knew that she wanted to be a police officer, and Child Development majors often go into teaching, nursing, or social services," Gill says. "She wanted to be able to better understand and serve the most vulnerable communities. Tara wanted to make a difference where it counted the most and work toward breaking the generational abuse and violence that exist in impoverished communities.

"What a loss to all of us and to those communities she would have changed for the better."

Shelby Moffatt, a Criminal Justice lecturer and LECS founding director, recognized O'Sullivan's leadership skills right away.

"When we were supposed to be mentoring her, Tara was mentoring the other LECS students. Her child development skills came out," Moffatt says. "The students recommended that she become the LECS commander, and you could see her confidence go from 100 to 1,000 percent. If I asked her to do something, she did it. She didn't complain. She was always on point."

Melissa Repa, director of the Sacramento State Career Center, remembers the first day of LECS orientation, when recruits ran the tough Peak Adventures ropes course on campus. Pushing hard to get all she could from her diminutive frame - O'Sullivan stood about 5-foot-4 and weighed about 125 pounds - she made an impression.

"It was a rainy, miserable day, and Tara had a cold," Repa recalls. "She was climbing ropes and cheering everyone on. I came back and said, ‘We need to watch this person.' She was so small but very proud, and you could tell right away that she would be successful.

"During workouts, when everyone was exhausted, she'd encourage them to work harder. She was a leader and like a mom and a sister, especially to other young women in the program," Repa says.

Hahn '95 (Marketing) met O'Sullivan and the other LECS students in August 2017, just before he was sworn in as Sacramento's police chief during a ceremony in the University Union Ballroom. Photos show a grinning O'Sullivan joking with the man who would become her boss.

"Everybody gravitated toward her, whether it was at the academy or her patrol team, or other officers," Hahn says. "She was funny. She could handle herself."

The day after O'Sullivan was killed, Hahn got a text from a North Sacramento community leader.

"She had only been in the north area for about a week by then," Hahn says. "He saw her talking to a group of young black girls, and they were all laughing. He said, ‘I'll never forget that.'

"Here's this young officer, this young woman, rolling-laughing with these young black girls. That's who she was. She could get along with anybody, was willing to help anybody, was happy to be at work, and very dedicated to do her job every day. I wish all of our officers were like that."

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About Dixie Reid

Dixie Reid has been a writer for Sac State since 2012 after decades as a newspaper reporter. A Texas native with the accent to prove it, Dixie is crazy about “dear friends, big dogs, good books, great food, day trips, baking cookies, California sunshine (and fog), and kind people.”