Next month will mark one year since Girard Police Officer Justin Leo was shot and killed in the line of duty. On Monday, his city came together, unveiling two permanent fixtures to honor his sacrifice.
“Words can’t explain the pain that we suffered that evening,” Mayor Jim Melfi said.
The pain surrounding Leo’s death is still very real in the community he grew up in and served.
“Obviously, we were always proud of him but I mean to watch him grow into the man that he’d become,” Dave Leo said. “He was a special kid.”
Hundreds of people came together this Labor Day for a run and walk — taking steps toward healing.
“I think that it just shows that there is unity in this community, that we haven’t forgotten who Justin is and everyone wants to be a part of his family’s life and just his legacy,” organizer Adam Foutz said.
It was 3.24 kilometers — a tribute to Leo’s badge number, 324. Many participants also wore t-shirts honoring him.
Foutz said the community’s response to the “Officer Leo Memorial Run/Walk” was encouraging, uplifting and powerful.
“I’m getting chills because Mr. Leo said, ‘Keep it simple. Just get the community together.’ But once we posted the first event situation, like, letting people know what’s going to happen, there was kind of an outpour of people coming together.”
Participants then gathered at the base of the Girard-McDonald Viaduct for the unveiling of a plaque, renaming the bridge the “Officer Justin Leo Memorial Bridge.”
Joining his parents and brothers and sisters in blue, the community watched as the bridge Leo once ran cross country on in high school was given his name.
“We want our citizens going forward to always remember his name, always remember the sacrifice he made for our community,” Melfi said.
“It epitomizes his life, his legacy and what the Leo family means to Girard,” Rep. Glenn Holmes (D – District 63) said.
The city began taking steps to rename the Girard-McDonald Viaduct in January.
Community members also stood by the Leos as they saw the monument honoring their son for the first time. It’s a permanent fixture outside of the police department, gifted by an anonymous donor.
“We recognize that life is so fragile and the dangers that our police officers face every day are real,” Melfi said.
At the bottom, etched in stone, is the phrase, “It’s not how this officer died that makes him a hero, it’s how he lived.”
“Someone told me about a saying that said, ‘People die twice. Once when they stop breathing and a second time when people don’t mention their name.’ I think Justin’s going to be OK for a while,” said.
Leo’s parents said the turnout is just an extension of the support the community has shown them over the past 11 months.
“A friend of mine wrote me this week and said, ‘You know, maybe today will be a day for tears of joy.’ I said, ‘I’m not there yet’ but you know, just the honor,” Dave Leo said.
Justin Leo was shot and killed while responding to what was reported as a domestic incident in October of 2017.