Robert J. Rusk was the first law enforcement officer in Spokane to be killed in the line of duty.
Rusk is buried at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, where his headstone shows he died at age 42 in 1886, but nowhere does it note the milestone his death marked. However, as Spokane’s earliest officer to fall, Robert Rusk’s name does stand at the top of one of many columns of names on the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which was erected and dedicated in 1987 at the Public Safety Building at 1100 W. Mallon Ave. in Spokane.
A carpenter by trade, the Canadian-born Rusk moved to Spokane with his wife, Susan, and their seven children. He became an officer on the night shift and often found himself breaking up fights.
Upon hearing of a gold discovery near Chewelah, he arranged for some time off to do some prospecting. On April 22, 1886, he set up camp at Deadman’s Creek about 9 miles north of Spokane. When his horses returned without him, a search party went out and found his body floating in the creek, with a gunshot through his right temple. There were moccasin prints in the wet sand, so the investigation focused on Indians he may have encountered in his police work. Well-known Indian scout Jim Silkoewoyeh, known as Curly Jim, led investigators to an encampment near Williams Lake south of Cheney, where one suspect, Crow Foot, was arrested. An accomplice, a man known as Chimikin, was later identified and arrested. Both had been involved in fights with Rusk, and revenge was deemed the motive.
At separate trials the two men were convicted of second-degree murder, and although the public was upset that the convictions were not for first-degree murder and threats of lynching were many, the two spent the rest of their lives in prison.
Rusk’s wife, Susan, who was only 34 when her husband was killed, never remarried. A relief project to provide her with some assistance included giving her a lot at the northwest corner of Bernard Street and Fourth Avenue where a home was built for them. She died in 1929 and was buried next to her husband.
There are 315 names on the Spokane memorial for Washington law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. The state has another law enforcement memorial in Olympia.
“They paid the ultimate price protecting us, and we are privileged to honor them now,” said Sue Walker, chairwoman of the Spokane Police Department History Book Committee and secretary-treasurer of the Spokane Law Enforcement Museum and secretary of the Law Enforcement Memorial Project.
She and others continue their research to find the names often lost in history of those law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty so they too can be honored.
On Tuesday, a public ceremony will honor four recent additions to the Spokane memorial:
• James Franklin Chatfield, a Whatcom County deputy sheriff, who was shot and killed by smugglers on the Canadian border July 28, 1921.
• Otto Brown, a Bellingham Police Department patrolman, who died on duty in a motorcycle accident Jan. 8, 1930.
• Washington State Patrol trooper Sean O’Connell Jr., who was killed while controlling traffic in Conway in Skagit County on May 31, 2013.
• Derek “Chip” Hansen, an officer in the Wapato Police Department, who died of complications from injuries suffered when attacked by a subject July 1, 2011.
A project is also being started to recognize officers at their own gravesites. Walker is writing a proposal for funding to the Behind the Badge Foundation to be able to provide plaques for officers’ graves.
“When I visited the gravesite of Robert Rusk, Spokane’s first police officer to give his life because of the work he did, and saw his headstone and that of his wife and other family members buried there, I realized that no one who walked by would ever know who he was or what he sacrificed for us,” she said.
“I think it would be fitting that at his gravesite it was noted that he died because he lived to protect us all.”