Police Salute One of Their Own
A phalanx of fellow motorcycle officers escorted the body of Laguna Beach police Officer Jon Coutchie back to familiar turf in Laguna Beach this past Tuesday, days after his death in the line of duty as a result of a traffic collision.
The entire police department staff as well as officers from nearby agencies welcomed the casket bearing the body of the slain officer alongside his survivors at the funeral home, McCormick & Sons Mortuary in Laguna Canyon.
“Every single overpass on I-5 was full of police or firefighters standing vigil and waiting for the motorcade. It was an incredible sight,” said local resident Dawn Price, who was returning to Laguna Beach early Tuesday morning.
An even larger procession is expected today, Friday, Sept. 27, at a public memorial service for Coutchie at Irvine’s 3200-seat Mariners Church, 5100 Newport Coast Dr., at 11 a.m. An overflow crowd is expected and the closure of outbound Laguna Canyon Road between 7 an 11 a.m. Coutchie is to be buried next to his grandfather’s grave in Yuma, Ariz., on Sunday, Sept. 29. Some employees will attend the graveside service on their own time, though two officers will accompany the casket on the drive to Arizona, said City Manager John Pietig.
On Monday, flags flew at half-staff in Laguna Beach and in Sacramento in recognition of Coutchie’s service. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sent condolences as well, saying “I am always humbled by the courage and sacrifice of those who daily go out on patrol to face risks and danger in order to keep us safe.”
Informal shrines overflowed with flowers and tribute notes at Cleo Street and Coast Highway, the scene of the fatality, in the police department’s lobby and with a projected flag visible in the evening hours on a Laguna Canyon hillside.
Coutchie, 41, of Dana Point, was the second officer in the department to die in the line of duty in 60 years. “The department’s devastated,” said Capt. Jason Kravetz. “Nobody here’s ever gone through this.” The previous on-duty death in the 90-person department, which includes 47 sworn officers, was the shooting of Gordon French in 1953, whose fatal injury instigated the building of a local hospital.
Coutchie’s death elicited tributes from residents and visitors who he had encountered.
“We had a bad traffic accident Friday night and Officer Coutchie was the responder,” said resident Janette Maestre. “He was the nicest man, so caring and patient, and made a traumatic event easier to get through.
“I was impressed with how he was giving advice to the younger guys documenting the damage in a very professional but almost big brotherly way,” Maestre said. “Our thoughts and heartfelt sympathy go out to his family and those he worked with everyday in the department.”
Resident Mace Wolf, who witnessed the aftermath of the collision at Cleo Street, sent a plea to Laguna police officials to eliminate nighttime motorcycle patrols.
“The primary tactical advantage of these bikes is that they are fast as bullets and are not easily seen by motorists. Both of these traits do not mix with night time patrols when visibility is poor and depth perception is impaired,” Morse said. “Please! I am sure the citizens of Laguna could do with one or two fewer arrests if it meant that our police officers would be much safer on a regular basis,” he said in a post on lagunabeachindy.com.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Officer Coutchie,” Ali Izad added in a post on the Indy’s Facebook page. “The world has lost one of the nicest and finest officers.”
Coutchie, a four-year officer and military veteran, died after being struck by a southbound pickup that turned in front of him on Coast Highway at Cleo Street about 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, Aaron Rothberg, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, which is investigating the collision, said on Monday.
The truck’s driver, a 20-year-old Irvine man, cooperated with investigators and was released at the scene without being cited or charged, Rothberg said. Neither alcohol nor drugs is suspected in the collision at the traffic-signal controlled intersection, he said. Investigators are trying to determine the speed of Coutchie’s motorcycle and whether its lights were on as well as review video footage from surveillance cameras in the area, he said. There are no visible skid marks at the intersection.
One of the arriving officers went to a nearby market and grabbed an American flag, returning to the accident scene to drape Coutchie’s body as an honor to his sacrifice as an Army Ranger and police officer, Kravetz said in a statement.
Coutchie was northbound on Coast Highway in search of a car reported speeding through the downtown area that had eluded another officer, said Kravetz, who added that the motorcycle officer was not engaged in a high-speed pursuit.
Couchie, a native of Tucson, Ariz., grew up in Orange County where he graduated from Laguna Hills High School in 1989. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he enlisted for military service. He served two tours of duty each in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2007 as a Ranger sergeant, the special operations force of the U.S. Army based at Ft. Benning, Ga. Coutchie received a military security clearance, but he sidestepped discussing his military service, Kravetz said. “He would tell you about the weather.”
After receiving an honorable discharge, Coutchie applied for a job as a part-time jailer with the Laguna force where a former classmate, Jeff Calvert, also worked. Seeing his potential, the department sponsored Coutchie’s training at Huntington Beach’s Golden West Police Academy in 2008. He completed training and the following year was sworn in as a Laguna officer, said a department statement.
Coutchie showed a passion for traffic issues and displayed expertise in accident investigation. Following this interest, he applied and was selected in March for one of the department’s three coveted motor officer positions, Kravetz said.
Coutchie is survived by his parents, a brother, a step-sister and a girlfriend.