For about a century, police departments in Arkansas towns have provided escorts for funeral processions.
A police car with flashing blue lights would drive slowly toward the cemetery, leading a line of cars with headlights on. It was a signal for other motorists to pull over and wait for the procession to pass.
But cities sometimes outgrow small-town traditions.
For about a century, police departments in Arkansas towns have provided escorts for funeral processions. A police car with flashing blue lights would drive slowly toward the cemetery, leading a line of cars with headlights on. It was a signal for other motorists to pull over and wait for the procession to pass. But cities sometimes outgrow small-town traditions. Only four of Arkansas' 10 largest cities still provide the service - Fayetteville, Rogers, Bentonville and Pine Bluff. Springdale was the most recent city to abandon the service. Springdale Police Chief Kathy O'Kelley made the decision last month, saying the practice of escorting funerals was dangerous to police officers and motorists. Motorists can pass safely through an intersection on a red light only when a police officer is there directing traffic, O'Kelley said. There are 18 stoplights on one route across Springdale. "I don't have the personnel on duty at one time to adequately cover those intersections," she said. "Really (the procession is) at the mercy of courteous drivers. ... Twenty years ago you had far smaller communities that were a more homogenous culture, and you could do the escorts then." Out of about 200 funerals last year in Springdale, one or two police officers provided the procession escorts most of the time, O'Kelley said. Nationwide, police departments are banning the escorts because of safety and liability issues, O'Kelley said. Young people sometimes don't know about the custom of stopping for a funeral procession, she said, and daytime running lights on many cars make it more difficult to recognize a funeral procession. Funeral homes have other options, O'Kelley said. They can hire companies that provide vehicle escorts, equip the hearse with flashing lights and use it to lead the procession, or abandon processions altogether. Springdale funeral home directors objected to the change. "This is the first time I've ever known of where a police presence isn't safe," said Charles C. Farmer, owner of Sisco Funeral Chapel in Springdale. O'Kelley said she remembers only one minor accident in Springdale during a funeral procession, and that was in the 1990s. Farmer said the decision was made without input from funeral home directors. "Certainly without police involvement, the funeral procession itself is gone," said Farmer. "It's done with." Kye Stokenbury, director at Memorial Funeral Home in Springdale, said advance notice of the change in policy would have given someone time to start a funeral escort business. Stokenbury said processions across Springdale don't require a lot of personnel; they could be done with a couple of police officers who leapfrog from one intersection to the next, something the city's officers have done in the past. But O'Kelley said the leapfrogging can be dangerous, as police cars speed around the procession to get to the next intersection to stop traffic. It was while leapfrogging from one intersection to the next on his motorcycle that Trevor Phillips, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., police officer, died on May 21, 2011, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, odmp.org. Phillips was attempting to pass the funeral procession when a motorist in the procession made a U-turn in front of the motorcycle, causing a collision that threw Phillips from his bike. Fayetteville Police Chief Greg Tabor said his department will continue the escorts, which are usually done by his three motorcycle officers. Tabor said he doesn't remember an accident ever occurring in Fayetteville during a funeral procession. "It's just not created a problem for us," he said. "I don't remember ever getting a complaint. ... I think the small amount of risk, however small it is, is worth the service it provides to the community." Two motorcycle officers can leapfrog more nimbly from one intersection to the next than officers driving cars, Tabor said. It costs the Fayetteville department about $13,000 per year to provide the escorts, he said. That's based on two officers working an hour during a funeral procession. There were 220 funeral processions in Fayetteville last year, he said. Funeral processions are great for public relations, Tabor said. "I get more positive e-mails and positive notes written to this department over funeral escorts than I do over any other thing," he said. Nevertheless, providing the escorts is a low priority. If all officers are busy, the funeral procession will have to proceed without them, Tabor said. Pine Bluff Police Chief Jeff Hubanks said his department has been providing police escorts ever since he arrived 28 years ago. "It's not something we do for every funeral by any means," he said. "As far as I know, we've always done them on request." People still pull over in Pine Bluff and let a funeral procession pass, even if it's on a four- or five-lane highway, Hubanks said. The Jefferson County sheriff's office, where Pine Bluff is the county seat, handles more escorts, even within the city limits of Pine Bluff, Hubanks said. Major Lafayette Woods Jr., a spokesman for the sheriff's office, said escorts are performed "solely as an expression of care and regard for the bereaved families." "The only hazards or immediate danger to the general public is when motorists fail to yield to emergency vehicles" during a funeral procession, he said in an e-mail. Bill Booker, president of Roller Funeral Home in Little Rock and a board member of the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association, said the topic of funeral escorts is "an emotionally charged issue." Neither Little Rock nor North Little Rock has provided police escorts during his 33 years in the funeral home business, Booker said. Instead, families hire companies that escort the procession. Booker said most of the escorts for Roller funerals in central Arkansas are provided by Fully Involved Motorcycle Escort Service in Little Rock. The company charges $160 for one escort and $255 for two, said Booker. Richard Dixon, owner of Fully Involved, said off-duty police officers and firefighters often work for his company escorting funeral processions. They can use their lights and legally block intersections, he said. Roller Funeral Home has 28 locations in 24 Arkansas cities, including Helena-West Helena, many of which still provide police escorts for processions. "We're able to rely on the city and the county to provide escort cities for us in our smaller cities, rural areas," Booker said. "You could look at it like it's a public service. There's a safety element to an escort being supplied to a funeral procession. "I always looked at it as a sign of respect," he said. "Of course, things do have to change."