Two served on the Pittsburgh Police force less than two years. The third was a veteran of 14 years.
At a memorial service attended by 10,000 people Thursday, each was remembered as a hero, someone who found his calling in uniform and carrying out the motto: To protect and serve.
Stephen Mayhle, Paul Sciullo II and Eric Kelly, who were killed while responding to a domestic call Saturday morning, should be honored by people living out that motto, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said.
Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said he felt his "badge shone brighter, I walked taller and I felt a little prouder," because of his fallen colleagues' actions.
As law enforcement officers, dignitaries and family gathered to mourn the slain officers at the University of Pittsburgh's basketball arena, experts said their surviving colleagues will face many challenges in returning to the job. Officers left behind may be reluctant to answer similar calls and may even be more likely to divorce or retire, experts say.
"It's life-altering for these people. They will never be the same," said Suzie Sawyer, executive director of Concerns of Police Survivors Inc. "You don't experience grief like this and be the same person."
The Camdenton, Mo.-based nonprofit provides resources to surviving families and affected co-workers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Officers on extra alert
Colleagues of slain officers are more likely to retire early, resign or get divorced, she said. Officers will also be extra alert for months, if not years.
Michael Lyman, a professor of criminology at Columbia College in Columbia, Mo., and a former state trooper in Kansas and Oklahoma, agreed officers may be hesitant about responding.
"That's normal and it's very proper to kind of question the nature of calls in the future," Lyman said.
Counseling can help, Lyman and Sawyer said.
The Pittsburgh Police Department is offering, but not requiring, counseling, said Diane Richard, a department spokeswoman. Officers are using it and it will be offered as long as needed, she said.
Jeff Thomason, spokesman for the Oakland, Calif., police department, which had four officers killed last month, said the department has a counselor on retainer and about 20 department staff who offer peer counseling.
Those immediately involved in the Oakland shootings were required to get counseling and other officers took advantage it, he said.
"In law enforcement, you don't want people to see your feelings, but since this affected our whole department, everyone understands you need to talk about the grieving process," he said. "You're never going to get over it, but you have to talk about it."
Lyman expects Pittsburgh police will also dissect the shootings: "What could we do better?" he said. "How could we — if we could do it all over again — approach this situation in a way that would prevent our officers from being killed?"
911 operator scrutinized
One aspect of Saturday's shooting that's already being examined is the performance of a 911 operator. The operator learned there were weapons in the house where the shooting took place but didn't press for more details and didn't ensure officers knew about the weapons.
Saturday's call showed no outward signs of danger. Margaret Poplawski simply told police she wanted their help in getting her son out of the house.
When she opened the door for the officers, son Richard Poplawski was standing behind her and opened fire, police said. Sciullo, 37, was shot in the home and Mayhle, 29, on the front stoop. Both men were dead within seconds. Kelly, 41, was shot as he arrived to provide backup, prompting a four-hour siege and gun battle with police.
Richard Poplawski is being held in the Allegheny County Jail on homicide and related charges.