OTTAWA – Family and friends choked back sobs and shed tears Thursday as they bade farewell to an Ottawa constable killed in the line of duty.
They remembered Eric Czapnik as a man who came to the police later in life, but who brought a passion and zeal that soon erased any doubts about his age. “I’ve never seen someone want something so much in life,” Ottawa Police Chief Vern White said of a man who at 48 was the oldest recruit in the force’s history.
The chief called his slaying “a senseless act.”
Led by muffled drums, thousands of police, firefighters and paramedics escorted the hearse carrying Czapnik’s coffin to a downtown Ottawa arena for the funeral rites.
Massed pipers met the hearse at the end of the march and the coffin, draped in the city flag, was carried in by eight officers stepping to the slow cadence of the drums.
Hundreds of civilians, including dozens of school children, lined the streets in -9 C temperatures to pay their respects to Czapnik, the first Ottawa-area police officer killed on duty in a quarter century.
With the arena mostly filled by some 8,000 uniformed personnel from across Canada and the United States, an overflow area with a giant TV screen was set up in a nearby building.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Czapnik was a hero who loved his family and his job, and who put his life on the line for the community.
“We will remember our hero,” the premier said.
Dignitaries at the service included McGuinty, Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley, federal cabinet ministers and MPs, senators, provincial cabinet ministers and members of the legislature as well as senior police officers from Ottawa, the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police.
Czapnik, 51, was stabbed to death Dec. 29 while doing paperwork in his police cruiser outside an Ottawa hospital.
Kevin Gregson, 43, a suspended Mountie, has been charged in the death and is in custody.
Czapnik was an immigrant from Poland, where his father was a Warsaw police officer. He followed his father’s path by joining the Ottawa force in 2007.
The sombre, 2-hour ceremony was tinged with moments of levity as Czapnik’s fellow officers remembered their friend.
Const. Troy Froats recalled Czapnik’s face blanching and voice cracking as he endured a rite of passage for all new officers: singing to his new colleagues while standing on a chair.
Czapnik chose the Polish army’s march.
“Even if he had sung it in English, we wouldn’t have understood a word,” Froats said.
After that, he was one of the boys. All that was missing was a nickname. The moniker came from Czapnik’s affinity for an eastern European favourite: pickles.
So fond was Czapnik of his new nickname that he would ignore the call of his number by dispatchers until they gave in and asked for Pickles.
“To Eric. Pickles. Our friend,” Froats said, his voice choked with emotion.
Steve Boucher, head of the Ottawa Police Association, said Czapnik’s death hit his colleagues hard because it had been so long since an officer died on duty.
“The range of emotions we’ve been going through in the last week has been very strange,” he said.
He added, though, that the officers feel they have a duty to Czapnik: “We have to send him off right.”
The father of four was well-known in the city’s Polish community, which turned out en masse for the funeral, along with Zenon Kosiniak-Kamysk, Poland’s ambassador-designate to Canada.