He was remembered as a man who lived by the values of his careers in the military and Buffalo Police Department. And as one of those speaking at his funeral put it, Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner is hero not because of how he died but because of how he lived.
Lehner died at the age of 34 after disappearing in a training exercise with the Buffalo Police Department's Underwater Rescue and Recovery Team on October 13. Following an extensive search utilizing crews and equipment from New York State and Southern Ontario, his body was recovered on October 17.
He joined the Buffalo Police Department in 2008. After beginning his career with its E District, stationed on Bailey Avenue, Lehner joined the K-9 Unit in 2016, adding the Undercover Rescue and Recovery Team to his duties earlier this year.
With thousands of police officers from various agencies lined up along the procession route, Lehner's body was carried to KeyBank Center in a flag-draped coffin, viewed through a glass-sided motorcycle-pulled hearse. His K-9 Unit partner, Shield, followed behind.
Representatives of all departments in which he worked offered tributes, including Lieutenant Salvatore Losi, who commands the K-9 Unit. Losi spoke of the special bond quickly formed between Lehner and his four-legged partner, Shield.
"Dog handlers more experienced than myself cannot believe that Craig only trained and worked with shield for 13 short months," Losi said. "The dog's demeanor and behavior suggest a dog team that had been together for years.
"Craig and Shield were inseparable. They trained tirelessly, worked days as well as days off. The team never missed a day on the K-9 agility training field on Louisiana Street. Although he was 20 years younger than almost all the other dog handlers in the Buffalo Police K-9 Unit, Craig became a role model for his fellow officers, a colleague we all sought to imitate."
He also previously served in the New York Army National Guard.
"Craig had a magnetic personality," said Retired New York Army National Guard Sergeant Major Mark Sorrentino. "After only meeting him for a few minutes, you knew this kid was special. There was a drive about him. It just made you want to do better, to fight longer, to do one more push-up, to run faster, to just do better than you did yesterday.
"His soldiers knew he would never turn his back on them. (With) Craig's communication skills and leadership style, his soldiers trusted him. No matter what was going on, he was able to push himself and his soldiers through. Craig's soldiers called him 'Superman.' They believed in him. They believed he could fly."
Perhaps the most emotional tribute came from Lehner's longtime partner, Officer Tommy Champion. He recalled humorous moments, including occasions when, en route to a call, Lehner would overhear the music from a neighboring car and dance along to it, prompting Champion to do the same and drawing laughter and cheers from the drivers of that adjacent car.
But Champion also offered some poignant reminders of the difficulties and challenges of their profession.
"Although sometimes it feels like the world no longer respects the sacrifices that we make, scrutinizes us and treats our patriotism and dedication as an anachronism, a relic belonging in the past, we shall not yield," Officer Champion said. "We shall not falter. We will continue working toward a better tomorrow, carrying out the oaths that we all solemnly vowed to. This is who we are, and this world needs us."
Even members of the general public came out to KeyBank Center. Sandra Munson was one of them.
"I understand that he worked at E District at one time or I don't know if he still did. I live in that area and I feel like he was one of our protectors and that we should be out here to support him and his family," Munson said.
Others stood in the cold rain outside, awaiting the procession as it left KeyBank Center for Forest Lawn Cemetery, where Lehner would be laid to rest.
"I just felt the urge to be here and it's such a sad occasion," said Marcia Tresmond, who was standing at Niagara Square. "I don't know these people or anything but I think it's a movement to show support from the people of Buffalo and Erie County."
LOOKING BACK ON THE DAY
Buffalo Police Lieutenant Jeff Rinaldo once again thanked the public and fellow law enforcement agencies for their outpouring of support during what has been a trying week and a half for the Buffalo Police Department. Early estimates place participation in the funeral and procession at approximately 8,000 people.
“It meant a lot,” said Rinaldo. “I can tell you that every officer in that procession, everybody at the grave site, that was what everybody was talking about – the massive amount of people that came out, were holding flags, were putting their hands on their heart, saluting the casket. Again, Western New York, Buffalo, the City of Good Neighbors, and today proved it. People came out, they had no idea, probably never even met a police officer in their life. They came out to support it and show this community cares.”
Along the Delaware Avenue procession route, local businesses wrapped trees and fences in blue ribbon. It was one of the many signs along with blue lights, blue-painted pumpkins, and blue buffalo pins which the public used to show their support for law enforcement and the Lehner family.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown called it “heartwarming” and said, “The community coming together, like it is, is certainly something we want to build on, that we want to continue, as we continue to honor the memory of Officer Lehner.”
The funeral service took the coordination of hundreds of officers, both in and outside of the Buffalo Police Department. Rinaldo said it was an easy call for volunteers wanting to help in any way they could.
“They stepped up. They made sure that the calls got answered and emergency services continued. Everybody wanted to do their part today. Some got to go to the funeral, some got to work the funeral, some got to set up at Forest Lawn, and some got to do the job that we’ve all been hired to do.”
Brown said some officers even volunteered to serve on the funeral detail during off-duty hours without pay.
Because Lehner was a former member of the New York Army National Guard, the service at the cemetery was a combined military and police ceremony.
“The things that you saw and witnessed at KeyBank Center were the police side of the respect paid, and then when he arrived at forest Lawn, the military took over the pall bearing aspect, bringing him to his final resting place,” said Rinaldo. “As far as the 21-gun salute, we saw a helicopter fly over, those are all part of both the military tradition as well as the police tradition and it’s just a final salute and a final farewell to our officers.”
Upon completion of the ceremony and words of faith at the graveside, family, friends, and fellow officers placed carnations of red, white, and blue on Lehner’s casket. They pressed their palms against the rain-soaked wood as they made their final farewells and, among the last to leave, was Lehner's K-9 partner Shield.
“Now, the reality sets in,” said Rinaldo.
“For the K-9 officers, they go back to work, and they’re short one officer. They’re, right now, short Shield. For the URT team, they go back to work, they go back to training – they’re short an officer. For the entire department – they’re short an officer.”
Rinaldo recalled the officers who have passed in his 20-year career, noting that those who are lost are never forgotten because their spirit and their memory live on.
The investigation into what happened on October 13, when Lehner was lost in the Niagara River, is expected to pick up speed now that funeral services are complete. Rinaldo said it is the priority investigation of the Buffalo Police Department’s Homicide Unit, which is working in conjunction with the New York State Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau and the Erie County Medical Examiner’s office.
As for Shield, members of the Buffalo Police Department K-9 team continue to share the responsibility of caring for the 85-pound German Shepherd, ensuring he is exercised and trained regularly at the department’s agility park. In support of the decision to keep Shield in service, a search will begin for a new handler who is a suitable match for the dog.
Additionally, in a time, hopefully long from now, when Shield passes on, he will be cremated and laid to rest in a grave alongside Lehner’s. Rinaldo said dog handlers on the K-9 team are given the option for what happens to their partner’s remains, and having Shield by his side is what Lehner chose.
While the grave site of Craig Lehner at Forest Lawn may be the officer’s final resting place, it is unlikely to remain the only physical tribute memorial to his memory. Brown alluded to memorials of some kind being in the works.
“There are a number of things that Officer Lehner’s colleagues are contemplating on the police department, a number of things that the department is contemplating, and a number of things that the administration of city government is contemplating. So you’ll be hearing more about permanent and other tributes from the city and from the police department at a later time.”
As the sun set on Wednesday, landmarks around Western New York were illuminated blue in honor of Lehner. The top of City Hall had already been shone in that color for days but on the evening after the officer's funeral, the Peace Bridge was also lit in blue. So, too, was Niagara Falls in 15-minute periods every hour.
The day before, Governor Andrew Cuomo had ordered flags at all state government buildings to be lowered to half-staff. He was not in attendance at Lehner's funeral Wednesday but Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Hochul, a local native, was there.
"It was an absolutely, deeply emotional experience but I could not be prouder of my fellow Buffalonians and this entire community for coming together in support of one of our own, one of our finest," Hochul said.