Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine



Officer Down
Montpelier Spring 1999

When Peter Finch was "mad as hell" in Network, he threw open the window of his corporate high-rise and yelled that he wasn't "gonna take it anymore."

When his own sense of decency and fair play had been injured, Chris Cosgriff ('99) took a more quiet and constructive approach. And his solution has spoken volumes.

Early in 1996 the JMU freshman had read two articles in The Washington Post that upset him. The first article was a feature story about Terrence Johnson, a man convicted of killing two Maryland police officers. Johnson was being released after 16 years in prison and the article, appearing on the Post Metro section front page, praised him for his rehabilitation and plans of becoming a lawyer.

The second Washington Post article appeared soon after. The story was about a police officer in Philadelphia who was killed on duty. The article was two paragraphs long and appeared buried somewhere in the middle of a section.

That a killer received banner accolades and a hero only a blurb maddened Cosgriff. "I just didn't think it was right," he says. "So I decided that I wanted to do something. About the only thing I knew how to do at that point was creating web pages. So I sat down and created one."

Cosgriff had no idea that his impulse would lead to an internationally renowned effort. The web site he created is called the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP) and it's devoted to memorializing law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. In just three years the ODMP has become one of the most visited memorials in the world.

The ODMP has been embraced fully by the international law enforcement community. Actually, they depend on it; cops from Canada to Australia and in every U.S. state go to the site as soon as rumors spread of yet another fallen brother or sister. Grieving family members get in touch directly with Cosgriff within hours of their tragedies. In fact, most of the information for the ODMP comes directly to Cosgriff now that his site is so widely known. Even the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial in Washington, D.C., receives most of its information about fallen officers from him. "Usually, before the National Memorial hears from police departments who have lost an officer, they hear about it from me," he says.

Despite the site's popularity and the praise Cosgriff receives, it's tough to describe the ODMP in the positive terms of success. Visiting the site (www.odmp.org), looking at photographs of dead officers and reading about their left-behind 18-month-olds leaves behind a sad awe. The running tally of slain police officers this year on the main page is depressing. But, with page after page memorializing officers through the years, it's clear that the ODMP is an enormous effort -- an effort requiring lots of people and money. Incredibly though, Cosgriff receives no compensation from the site, and he maintains it alone.

Such altruism is unusual, but Chris Cosgriff is an unusual person. Behind his contemporary good looks and fast smile, his integrity and commitment to an ideal make him seem as if he's from another time.

Maybe Debra Valenzuela of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) gets it right when she says, "I think Chris is an actual angel." COPS is a national organization that helps families of fallen officers. "Every morning when I get to work I log onto the ODMP first thing. I'd say that 90 percent of the time I get my information about officers who have died from Chris' site first. I don't know how he does it," she says.

Cosgriff grew up in northern Virginia. As a high schooler he was an Explorer, which is "basically a junior police officer," he says. He also hung around the City of Fairfax Police Department. "I made a lot of good friends there. By the time I made it to college, I realized that all cops are just normal people except that they care about everyone else's safety to the point that they would die for someone they don't know." It's this affection for police that compels Cosgriff. And despite the moving nature of his efforts, his passion comes across in an oddly plain way. He speaks matter-of-factly about how much he cares, and his sincerity is disarming.

This unpretentiousness is no surprise to Judy and Bob Cosgriff. His mom says, "We've always called him Œthe little man with a plan.' Once when Chris was just a toddler, his older brother and sister were playing with a ball and it rolled behind our couch. Well, as they argued over who's fault it was and who would have to fetch it, Chris quietly climbed behind the couch, got the ball, gave it to his brother and walked off. He's always been like that; Chris just does things without saying much." The pride in Judy Cosgriff's voice is clear but without surprise. Chris is written about often in the media. He and the ODMP are mentioned frequently in print and on air when another police officer dies in the line of duty.

"He was civic-minded very young, too," his father says. "Chris got involved with a crew to deliver food and drinks to fire fighters on the job. It seemed like he was always doing things like that. We're very proud of Chris," he says. "In a way I look up to him for what he has done."

What makes Cosgriff's impact on the World Wide Web truly uncommon is that he refuses to profit from the ODMP. With so many people visiting the site daily, the ODMP is hot property. Advertisers would love to hawk their products there. But, Cosgriff says, "Even though I get offers all the time to put advertising on the site, I just don't feel that would be right." Profiting from the death of police officers would be tasteless, yet easy to imagine in the modern Internet culture obsessed with discovering how to generate monetary profits. But Cosgriff uses no cash yardstick to measure his success with the ODMP. He has no other personal motivations either -- no aspirations for law enforcement, no relatives killed in the line of duty. "It's just something I do in my spare time."

Cosgriff graduates this month and begins his career in information technology with Capital One in Richmond. Starting a full-time career and beginning adult life doesn't dampen his fire for the ODMP, however. "It's not something that I could just stop now. It's got a life of its own." In addition to hundreds of agencies around the country using the information on the ODMP for training, Cosgriff writes a regular column in Southern Lawman Magazine and he is part of Operation Security Blanket, a project that displays around the country a quilt made completely of law enforcement agency patches.

To save time Cosgriff has automated the site. Now the depressing task of updating requires less time than when he started it. "I guess I still spend at least 10 hours a week on the ODMP," he says. And although Cosgriff's demeanor is straightforward, when pressed why he will indefinitely maintain the site, he smiles modestly and looks away. "I still really believe in the ODMP. The police officers deserve it."


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