by Matt Konkle
Quadratec Channel Editor
HOCKESSIN, Del. — They gathered silently around a tree-covered northern Delaware library parking lot Sunday afternoon, every one of them separated by cabins of steel atop four rubber wheels. Separated not by choice, but by order.
Under normal circumstances there would be handshakes, high-fives, good-natured ribbing. Plans would be made; past exploits reviewed, digested and sometimes embellished.
But as we all know, these are not normal circumstances at the moment.
And this was no ordinary event.
For this lot was the staging point for a Jeep caravan to honor Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen Ballard, who was shot and killed three years ago to the day. From the library parking lot, nearly 150 Jeeps streamed out in a parade that wound through Ballard’s old neighborhood before passing the house where his widow, Louise Cummings, and his daughter live.
Cummings and other family members stood outside their house and waved as the horde of Jeeps slowly cruised by—horns beeping and homemade signs fluttering. Several Delaware State Police motorcycle units and other state vehicles led the way, while New Castle County (Del.) Police cruisers made up the rear guard.
"The Jeepers, they're awesome—nobody could do a tribute like this," Cummings said. "Delaware State Police, New Castle County Police, all coming together. That's what it's all about. It's about community and showing love, honor and respect."
Ballard was gunned down outside a northern Delaware convenience store April 26, 2017 while checking on a suspicious vehicle. The 32-year-old Ballard was a highly respected eight-year veteran of the Delaware State Police.
Sunday’s caravan was organized by The Jeepers Back the Blue Foundation, an organization created following Ballard’s death to honor law enforcement officers. The group has hosted a Jeepers Back the Blue Jamboree event the past three years at different Delaware locations, and has raised more than $81,000 the past two years alone which went to families of fallen police officers and scholarship funds for the children of law enforcement officers.
This year’s event was scheduled for May 15-16 at Dover International Speedway, but has been pushed back until September 11-12 because of current COVID-19 restrictions.
Jeff Lehnert, founder of The Jeepers Back the Blue Foundation, said he was contacted by Cummings about two weeks earlier about organizing a caravan to mark the anniversary of Ballard’s death.
”Louise sent me a message stating that the anniversary of (Ballard’s) death was coming up and that with all the COVID-19 related restrictions going on, there was not going to be any ceremony commemorating it,” Lehnert said. “She was wondering if I might be able to help, and I said 'of course, that’s what we do.'”
However, planning the event meant making sure those who attended followed all state and local health department guidance, as well as coordinating with law enforcement to ensure there were no other issues. Hence the reason everyone was required to stay in their respective Jeeps at the library parking lot, as well as throughout the caravan.
”We had some initial concerns of people getting in trouble for gathering, so we reached out to the New Castle County Police, since it was their territory,” Lehnert said. “It went straight to the top and we got the 'ok' from them very quickly.
”A couple days before the event I got a call from the Delaware State Police stating that we would be getting their support as well.”
As the caravan made its way through Ballard’s old neighborhood, many neighbors stood outside their houses clapping, holding up smartphones, flags, and waving to the passing Jeeps.
Lehnert, whose black and red Jeep Wrangler led the caravan, was the first to see the huge turnout as he cruised past each house.
”When we saw the first people standing outside filming us, it brought a smile to my face and I knew then that it was going to catch a lot of people in the feels,” Lehnert said. “As we rounded the corner towards (Cummings’) house and saw them standing outside, I had this overwhelming sense of pride come over me knowing that what they were about to see would honor Stephen in such an amazing way—and in a way that only Jeep people can do.
”It was just another great opportunity to let the law enforcement community see how much they are loved and supported by the Jeep community.”
As the caravan rolled on and vehicles passed Cummings and family, it looped around a circle in the neighborhood and then filed past the house again—Jeeps passing each other at that point.
From there, the group disbursed in order to follow its social distancing mandate. No handshakes, high-fives, or good-natured ribbing this time. Just a sense of duty and accomplishment.
"It was such an honor to be part of this event," posted Sean Egan on the group's Facebook page.