Any loss of life, particularly of a young person brimming with promise, is unspeakable.
But in this case, in this city, the loss of life is poignant beyond words when it involves a rookie police officer, a 26-year-old woman who was in the process of helping another woman – an alleged domestic violence victim – when the officer was ambushed and gunned down.
How can Sacramento, a city that has experienced too much loss and too much bloodshed in recent years, ever forget Officer Tara O’Sullivan?
We can’t because O’Sullivan’s final moments on this earth were spent trying to help the most misunderstood and maligned victim in our community and in communities across America: the domestic violence survivor who is still asked by society why she doesn’t just leave her abuser or why she ever loved her abuser in the first place.
O’Sullivan’s death provides a most profound answer to that question.
“This is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, a young officer trying to support a victim” said Beth Hassett, the executive director of WEAVE, the primary provider of domestic violence services in Sacramento County.
“This is just the worst case scenario of why someone doesn’t leave.”
It’s not only common for police officers to be called to assist a domestic violence victim seeking to flee her abuser, Hassett said it’s the preferred method because the presence of a peace officer adds a level of safety and comfort to terrible, volatile situations.
“When someone is leaving a domestic violence situation, its the most dangerous time in the relationship. Even if the abuser hasn’t been physical, that moment can trigger him to commit a more violent act that even the victim didn’t know he was capable of.”
Along with helping the victim gather her belongings, O’Sullivan would likely have been recommending the victim use a WEAVE safe house and support programs.
Hassett has been with WEAVE since the mid-1990s and chose to work with victims because she wanted to help other women. Consequently, she feels a kinship with a fallen officer moved to help other women in need.
“It must have been so reassuring to the victim to have (O’Sullivan) and other officers there,” Hassett said. “I can’t even imagine how the (victim) feels now.”
It’s hard to imagine how O’Sullivan’s parents feel today. Or her Sacramento State classmates and professors who knew her as a leader and a striver.
“She was the face of our program,” said Shelby Moffatt, a former Sacramento Police officer who runs the Law Enforcement Candidate Scholars Program at Sac State. Known by it’s acronym of LECS, it seeks to create more opportunities for women and people of color to enter the ranks of law enforcement. LECS is open to everyone, but Moffatt said he was particularly interested in widening the pool of law enforcement candidates in order to diversify the ranks of law enforcement.
O’Sullivan was part of the first graduating class of LECS students last year.
“She was in our first promo video,” Moffatt said. “Right away, she was taking charge. She was very forthright.”
Moffatt said LECS drills students on the physical and intellectual challenges of police work. LECS has partnerships with the Sacramento Police Department and California Highway Patrol. “It’s open to everybody but I was interested in drawing folks from underrepresented communities,” Moffatt said.
“She was a go-getter. She was slightly built but she was still able to compete.”
O’Sullivan was part of a generation of young cops who will diversify Sac PD. And here is where her death should never be mischaracterized. Just as it’s wrong to blame the women who are abused by men, it’s wrong to think that O’Sullivan’s death somehow means that women should not be on the front lines of law enforcement.
On the night of her death, when a reporter’s question compared O’Sullivan’s death to that of Natalie Corona, a Davis officer gunned down in January, the only woman on the Sacramento City Council felt the need to answer.
“I don’t want anyone thinking that Natalie Corona and Tara O’Sullivan died because they were girls,” said Angelique Ashby.
“They didn’t die because they were women. They died because they were heroes. Tara was there protecting another woman. She gave her young life to protect another woman and I think that is very profound and should not be (diminished).”
“In Sacramento, we’re going to recruit more women officers. And when you have more women officers, they will be involved in every kind of scenario.”
In this case, Ashby said, “You can imagine this young woman telling the victim, ‘I’m going to help you.’ You see (O’Sullivan’s picture) and half her face is that smile. She looked so happy. She was so eager, just starting out her career. She was a strong young woman going out to defend another woman and paying with her life at 26.”
As a community, we grieve how Tara O’Sullivan died. But we only honor her if we remember how she lived and what she was trying to do on the day a person nurtured to do good met an outcome that will never make sense.
This story was changed to correct Natalie Corona’s police department.