Farmington Police Cpl. Rocky Velarde stands on Thursday next to photographs of seven officers who have died in the line of duty during the annual Peace
Farmington Police Cpl. Rocky Velarde stands on Thursday next to photographs of seven officers who have died in the line of duty during the annual Peace Officers Memorial ceremony at the Veterans Memorial in Berg Park in Farmington. (Megan Farmer — The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — Law enforcement officials and community members gathered Thursday at the Veterans Memorial at Berg Park to remember seven San Juan County officers who died in the line of duty.

The ceremony was part of Peace Officers Memorial Day, a national day that honors officers who have died while in service.

"We find comfort in the fact that no one tragedy or act of violence can erase them from our hearts," said Farmington Police Department Cpl. Rocky Velarde during the ceremony, reading from a speech prepared by Sgt. Josh Llano.

Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts spoke about recent police violence in Albuquerque, including a police shooting. He said residents want to feel law enforcement is protecting them.

"That does require walking that thin line occasionally," Roberts said.

He said officers sometimes "fall over that line," but he would prefer they continue walking that line to protect residents.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said officers are often forgotten. He said, for example, on the news today, he saw stories about the National September 11 Memorial Museum, but Peace Officers Memorial Day wasn't mentioned.

"Without the drama and outrage, we are left with a day of quiet reflection," he said.

Hebbe emphasized the importance of remembering the officers who have died, saying those men and women "are the most important part of the story of our profession." He said they performed their jobs in dangerous situations daily, not just on the day they were killed, and their work often went unnoticed.

"This is the definition of nobility," he said.

Keith Herrera of the Farmington Police Department and his brother, Bloomfield Police Sgt. Chad Herrera, spoke on Thursday about their grandfather, Benjamin Herrera, a Farmington police officer killed in action.

Two days ago, Chad Herrera took his 4-year-old son to Santa Fe National Cemetery, where the young boy's great-grandfather is buried. As he was telling his son about the late officer, the boy said, "He's not dead, Dad. He jumped into my heart."

Clockwise from left, Farmington Police Sgt. James E. Thode, Farmington Police Lt. Owen A. Landdock, Bloomfield Police Officer Wayne M. Steadman, Farmington
Clockwise from left, Farmington Police Sgt. James E. Thode, Farmington Police Lt. Owen A. Landdock, Bloomfield Police Officer Wayne M. Steadman, Farmington Police Officer Benjamin A. Herrera, New Mexico State Police Officer Lowell P. Howard, New Mexico State Police Officer David M. Smith and, center, Farmington Community Service Officer Victoria L. Chavez are pictured in a photo collage. All of the officers died in the line of duty and were honored Thursday at the Peace Officers Memorial Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial in Berg Park in Farmington. (Megan Farmer — The Daily Times)

In March 1962, Benjamin Herrera, a 38-year-old father of six and former teacher, was dispatched to a domestic violence situation, along with another officer. An armed subject shot him in the stomach and shot the other officer three times. By the time reinforcements arrived, Benjamin Herrera was dead, and his partner was wounded.

Benjamin Herrera was the first recorded police officer death in the Farmington area.

Seventeen years later, Farmington police Lt. Owen A. Landdock was killed during a role-playing training exercise. He was playing the role of a suspect when back-up cadets were called in. One cadet's gun had not been checked and still contained bullets, not blanks. During the exercise on Aug. 17, 1979, he shot and killed Landdock, Velarde said.

Another officer honored Thursday was Victoria Chavez, a Farmington community service officer. In 1992, she checked on the home of a family vacationing out of town. A man had broken into the house and saw her arrive, said Shawn Archuleta, a Farmington community service officer, at the ceremony.

Chavez radioed twice asking for a second officer. Her last recorded transmission was, "No, he's got a gun," Archuleta said.

When officers arrived, they found Chavez lying across the front of her police car. She died from multiple gunshot wounds.

The most recent Farmington officer to die while serving was Sgt. James E. Thode. In addition to working as a Farmington police officer, Thode was a member of the National Guard. He was deployed in 2010 to Iraq and died on Dec. 2, 2010, while trying to find an improvised explosive device.

"When I look through the audience, I don't see a lot of people who haven't been touched by the life of James Thode," Farmington police Sgt. Dale Bode said during the ceremony.

Other officers honored included Wayne M. Stedman Jr., a Bloomfield police officer killed on Feb. 17, 1982, when a dump truck hit his car while he was responding to a medical call, and Lowell D. Howard and David M. Smith, state police officers who died on Aug. 6, 1984, when their plane crashed during an aerial speed enforcement sweep in the Farmington area.

Bloomfield police Chief Mike Kovacs spoke about Stedman and the service officers provide the community. He spoke about what officers go through on a daily basis, including mental and physical injuries. Officers who died are "those who gave some until they gave all," he said.

"You all express your love for your fellow officers every time you rush to their aid, and you express your love for the community in the same way," Kovacs said.

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.