DENHAM SPRINGS – This year, it started with two guys cooking in his parking lot. He announced it on Facebook at 8 p.m. on a Friday.
Two days later, Brandon Cavin, owner of Bayou Gunslingers, had to go back on Facebook to say the plans for the Second Annual Armor for Officers Benefit had changed.
The public response was so great, a couple of guys and parking lot could not hold the fundraiser, now set for noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, at Sidney Hutchinson Park in Walker.
One year after the loss of three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers – all Livingston Parish residents – local law enforcement officials say public support in Livingston Parish has not wavered.
“We have something unusual here in tremendous support from our community,” said Shannon Womack, chief of the Denham Springs Police Department.
“There was an outpouring of support,” after the Baton Rouge shootings, he said. “People feel we’re their own.”
On July 17, 2016, Gavin Long shot six police officers, three fatally: Deputy Brad Garafola, 45, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office and Officer Matthew Gerald, 41, and Cpl. Montrell Jackson, 32, of the Baton Rouge Police Department.
East Baton Rouge Parish Deputy Nick Tullier was severely wounded and has had a long road in recovery.
The three officers who lost their lives were Livingston Parish residents, Womack said, which touched many people here.
“We’re still seeing the impact with our officers,” Womack said.
After the shootings, Cavin organized a low-key fundraiser to provide body armor for police officers.
Next month’s Armor of Officers fundraiser will be a family-friendly event, Cavin said, with no alcohol or pets.
Food will be catered by Los Sombreros, of Walker, and Big Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill, of Denham Springs, while volunteers will be barbecuing and cooking up jambalaya. Food tickets will be sold for $10.
Live entertainment is being lined up now, Cavin said, and will be announced as performers are confirmed.
When Cavin contacted Capt. John Sharp, public information officer and social media director for the Walker Police Department, to tell him of the fundraiser, Cavin mentioned how big it was growing.
The police captain said he recommended Cavin look into Sidney Hutchinson Park as a site because it offers parking, water and restrooms.
“That’s going to be a big deal,” Sharp said of the fundraiser. “That’s great whether we benefit of another agency in the parish. It brings the public and law enforcement together.”
Body armor vests have a shelf life, according to Sharp, “So it is important to make sure they are all up to date.”
Shortly after the shootings, the public showed up at the doors to area police departments with food, drinks, cards or sometimes just a word or two of support.
“It was wonderful. People came in to pray, give us a hug, take a picture, let us know they appreciated what we were doing,” Sharp said. “Our community supports our police.”
Another example – Sharp said on July 3 a woman dropped by the Walker police station and left three large pizzas.
In Denham Springs, a woman has created key chains for police officers with a plastic blue shield and handed them out, Womack said. A group of ministers came to pray for the officers one day.
He thumbed through a stack of papers on his desk and found a letter addressed to “the police chief.”
A young boy wrote a letter and drew a police officer.
“I love police officer. I can be a police officer 1 day. I love you chief,” it read.
When the Police Department gets such letters, they are put on a bulletin board for officers to see. This one was still on the chief’s desk.
“It happens more than you think,” Womack said.
“We’re still six weeks out, but there’s a lot of different things coming in,” for the raffle, Cavin said, including ATV accessories, five firearms and a painting.
As soon they are printed, raffle tickets will be pre-sold at Bayou Gunslingers and Big Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill, he said.
Tickets will be sold for specific items, he said. The cost of the ticket will vary according to the value of the item.
If someone were to donate an item worth $700 and only $300 in tickets is collected, then it would have been better for the donor to give the group $700, he said.
Then there will be a large pool raffle for $1. A number of items will be placed together and as each ticket is drawn, the winner will get to select from the items in the pool.
The support for local law enforcement did not come only from private citizens, Womack said.
“On the night James Foster had his motorcycle crash, Nicholas Tullier came and stayed all night in the emergency room with us,” Womack recalled.
Foster, a Denham Springs officer, did not survive his injuries, but the chief said he was not surprised by Tullier’s support.
“We knew him,” he said, referring to Tullier. “That’s the kind of guy he was. He was there for us.”
Cavin said he hopes to build on the success of the first fundraiser.
“Last year we did not make it public. It was under the radar,” Cavin said, but the first fundraising effort saw “terrific results. We proved ourselves as a worthy charity.”
One hundred percent of the money raised goes to Armor for Officers, Cavin said.
The nonprofit group’s goal is to provide local law enforcement officers with rifle-rated armor protection, Cavin said. Last year, it raised enough funds to outfit 700 officers, he said.
No degree of support would continue if the public did not trust their department, Sharp said.
“Our job is to make the community as safe as we can,” Sharp said. “We have 30,000 followers on social media in a town of 6,300.”
Perception is always on the mind of offices, Sharp said.
One Walker officer told him of an incident in a restaurant where a small child was cranky and a parent told him they would have “that police officer” arrest him.
Sharp said he worries about the message that sends to children.
“We don’t want officers to be feared in a social setting,” Sharp said. “Anytime a child needs help, if he sees someone with a badge and uniform and firearm, we want them to know they can trust that officer to help them.”
Denham Springs officers are rarely “seen in our community as a negative,” Womack added.
“We’re human,” he said. “We have fears, concerns. We have to pay bills, take care of families.”
The Armor for Officers benefit is still looking for donations to cover some of the costs, Cavin said, while raffle donations can be brought to Bayou Gunslingers, 1107 Florida Ave. SW, Denham Springs.
So far, sponsors include Premier Credit, Tiger Audio, Los Sombreros, Vapor Springs, Mane Attraction Salon, Big Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill, Elite Power Sports, On Site Audio, CSC Customs, Womack Head & Block.
Cavin said he can be reached through Bayou Gunslingers Facebook page. A PayPal account for those wanting to make donations also is available.
“I believe our cause has proven itself in the past and we do make a difference,” Cavin said.
Kevin Fambrough is a reporter at the Livingston Parish News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @fambroughkevin.