Blue Knights Take To Their Weapons In Kilgore
By Jacque Hilburn-Simmons
Retired lawman Bill Haylett, of Buffalo, N.Y., didn't seem to mind the Texas heat Wednesday as he aimed a Glock semi-automatic pistol at a paper bad guy. After several shots, the former narcotics officer paused to assess his performance using an unfamiliar firearm, a Glock 17 9 mm handgun.
"I thought it was OK," he said squinting in the sunlight. "I've been retired 23 years."
Haylett was one of 60 law enforcement officers and their families vying for top honors during a shooting competition at the East Texas Police Academy for the Blue Knights International Conference in Tyler that wraps up Friday.
Judy Haylett said her husband's retirement, spurred by a gunshot wound to the head, gives them more time as a couple to enjoy life and socialize with the Blue Knights, a past time they've enjoyed for 18 years.
"We come to these (conferences) so we can meet up with friends and visit," she said. "The conventions are the only time we get to see them."
More than 500 Blue Knights, plus guests, gathered in Tyler this week to participate in the conference, a first for the city and for Texas.
The nonprofit, fraternal police organization, started in 1974, has more than 20,000 members worldwide, with 45 chapters in Texas alone.
Tyler's Blue Knight Texas 34 chapter planned this week's conference, which included meetings, motorcycle tours, Texas cuisine, followed today by an 8:30 a.m. parade on South Broadway Avenue near Rieck Road and a bike show, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., at Sleep Inn Suites, 5555 Donnybrook Ave.
"We are family. We are public servants, and this is something we do for fun," Texas 34 President Richard Cashell said. "For some, this is their summer vacation."
Knights who wanted to try out their shooting skills took advantage of Wednesday's friendly firearms competition.
The police academy, a division of Kilgore College, provided the firearms, ammo, targets, oversight and refreshments, some of which were served from a miniature chuck wagon provided by the Knights' Texas 21 out of Waxahachie.
"There are people here from Poland, Sweden, Germany, all over the place," Police Academy Director Brian Ruthven said. "Some of these people have never shot a semi-automatic before -- they will all be using all the same guns, all the same ammo to keep the playing field even."
The objective was to fire at a silhouetted target from various distances.
Tobacco Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents served as score keepers.
Safety was the word of the day, officers said.
"Our No. 1 goal here today is to leave the gun range without anyone getting hurt," Chuck Barber, event range master, said.
Barber asked participants to cite the top rule in law enforcement, and seemingly in one voice, officers responded: "To go home at the end of the day."
He added, "If you don't act safe, you can't keep help the person who needs it."
Competitors were asked to load their weapons only when instructed and to keep an eye out for any unsafe activities near the firing line.
Participants were given two magazines, loaded with a predetermined number of rounds.
"We're not going to shoot close because it keeps the competition stiff," Ruthven said. "That way the cream of the crop comes to the surface. We're not going to get in a hurry. ... We're going to find a top gun today."
Ultimately, Thomas Sjostrom, of Pennsylvania, claimed top honors, a Remington 700 tactical bolt action rifle .308 caliber provided by Hot Rod Arms, Tyler.
Ron Rodriguez, representing Blue Knights Texas 6, won the chance drawing and received a Glock 17 9 mm, also from the company.
This week's Blue Knights International Conference is the culmination of months of planning, Cashell said, noting that the occasion rolls around once every other year at points around the globe.
Tyler bid and won the opportunity to bring the international conference to Texas, a first for both the state and the city.
Next year's conference is in Austria.
Mike Waldspurger, of Thun, Switzerland, was found at the shooting competition, standing downwind from the barbeque smoker.
He is the founder of Blue Knights 01 Switzerland and is the only person from his country attending the conference. There are between 35 and 40 Knights in his country.
"Thumbs up, definitely," he said of his visit. "I'm enjoying the people, but I'm really enjoying the food. ... I like meat."
Waldspurger said this was his first visit to Texas, but the scenery is pretty much what he expected.
"There was one surprise," he said. "We had a fish fry last night and I didn't expect fish in Texas."
Retired Tyler police officer Chuck Tompkins said he views Blue Knights members as extended family.
Missing from Wednesday's shooting competition was its primary planner, Les Ferguson, the police academy's senior firearms instructor, who died June 27 in a traffic accident.
Ruthven said he and Ferguson shared a 32-year friendship and a love of riding motorcycles.
"Les was the vice president of the chapter," Ruthven said. "He agreed to do the shooting competition and after his death, with the help of the Blue Knights, we were able to do it. This was a long time coming -- we're making it happen."