Teresa Dickerson-Gaither still remembers when her son, Courtney Dickerson, came to her house after one of his first shifts with the Danville Police Department in 2004. He walked in and asked if he could demonstrate how his handcuffs work by handcuffing her.
She put her hands behind her back as he cuffed them together.
“I don’t remember if they gave me keys to these things,” Dickerson-Gaither recalls her son saying.
After digging through his car and joking that he could just take her back to the station, Dickerson finally found the keys and undid the cuffs. Dickerson-Gaither holds on tightly to this memory and many others of her son, who died in a car crash while on duty with the Danville Police Department after a little more than a year on the job.
“Now that he’s not here, you miss that," Dickerson-Gaither said. "I miss the humor that he had,”
Dickerson was the most recent of 12 law enforcement officers between the Danville Police Department, the Danville Sheriff’s Office and the Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office who died in the line of duty. During National Police Week — an annual recognition of law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty — families in Danville and Pittsylvania County of officers who died on the job reflect on the legacy their lost family members left behind and why it’s important to remember their sacrifice.
President John F. Kennedy started National Police Week in the 1960s as a way to honor fallen officers. Every year, the families of officers who died in the line of duty that year are invited to a special ceremony in Washington, D.C., on May 15, but that ceremony was held virtually this year because of concerns due to COVID-19.
Mary Betterton, who’s husband Frankie Betterton was killed in a shooting in 2002, and the Gaithers remember going to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony, with the children of the officers even getting to meet President George W. Bush.
Frankie Betterton “had always wanted to be a state policeman,” Mary Betterton said. After time in the air force and years spent working in the cable business, Betterton decided to join the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office.
On May 17, 2002, Betterton pulled over two vehicles — one driven by a man, the other by his girlfriend — for a traffic stop on U.S. 58. He let the girl go, but he brought the man into the passenger seat of his patrol car, where he pulled out a handgun and shot Betterton in the head. He fled the scene but was apprehended the next day, and eventually sentenced to life in prison for capital murder.
During his time with the sheriff’s office, Betterton said her husband would often stop by Domino’s Pizza on his shift to make sure that the employees were safe when the business closed for the night.
“Every night when they closed and finally finished cleaning up, Frankie would be sitting in the parking lot waiting for her to go out with the money,” Betterton said.
She remembers sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of him in the garage, digging through their stuff to find the right piece of equipment to help someone he found with a broken down car.
“He really was a community servant…. He knew his people,” she said.
Dickerson-Gaither was nervous about the idea of her son joining the police department, but the last Danville officer to die in the line of duty was John P. Jones, who was shot in the 1920s. So the possibility that he could die didn’t seem real.
But one night, after stopping at Western Sizzlin for a surprise birthday party for his grandmother, Dickerson was driving west on Halifax Road to answer an alarm call on Piney Forest Road when his vehicle flipped. He was ejected from the car and died at the hospital soon after. He left behind his wife and 3-year-old son Donovan, who is graduating this year from Tunstall High School.
Dickerson-Gaither has a chest full of Dickerson’s possessions, including the uniform he was wearing during the crash, his car keys and his wallet sitting in her living room. Dickerson’s parents can’t help but think about how much life their son, who was the top of his class in the police academy and winner the 2005 officer of the year for the Danville Police Department after his death, had ahead of him.
“Courtney had a lot of potential. He could have been anything he wanted to be,” said Courtney Dickerson’s father, Charles Gaither. “If he wanted to progress in the police department, nothing could have held him back.”
Neither Betterton nor the Gaithers were expecting their loved one to die.
“That was a pretty routine traffic stop,” Betterton said. “If he was going on a drug raid or something you would expect that.”
Gary Thomas, a 40-year law enforcement veteran who now works part-time as an investigator with the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, has connections with fallen officers. His grandfather, deputy Holland Thomas had been with the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office for 33 years when the pellets lodged in his abdomen from a shotgun blast years earlier caused internal bleeding, an infection and ultimately his death.
Gary Thomas, who has worked with the Danville Police Department, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, never knew his grandfather, who died years before he was born, but his legacy did inspire him.
“Based on my conversations with my father and other people, he was tough,” Thomas said of his grandfather. “He was just highly respected in an era where the police … weren’t always highly thought of.”
Thomas was also with Pittsylvania County investigator Terry Barker Sr. when he died in 2004. During a joint surveillance operation with the Virginia State Police and Thomas from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — in which Barker had carried a 60-pound marine battery through the woods to power a surveillance system — Barker had a heart attack that proved fatal.
Thomas still remembers getting out of the trailing vehicle and helping the Virginia State Police agent attempt to give Barker CPR to no avail.
“That was a video that played in my head over and over again for a long time,” Thomas said.
The legacy of his grandfather inspired him to get into law enforcement, and the respect for his father — who served with the Chatham Police Department for 40 years — and officers like Barker encouraged him to stay in the field as long as he has.
“It’s been a privilege and an honor to serve with people like Terry Barker,” Thomas said. “If in any way I came close to what my father and grandfather were, I’d feel an honor, just to follow in their footsteps.”
To honor those who lost their lives, a memorial for fallen Pittsylvania County law enforcement officers was erected in the middle of downtown Chatham. Vic Ingram, a current member of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors who served more than 30 years with the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’ Office, helped lead that effort, conducting research about the officers and
“Out of everything I’ve done in my law enforcement career, this was the most memorable, the most honorable,” he said.
Even as National Police Week, which concluded on Saturday, came to a close, Betterton and Gaither-Dickerson want people to remember the sacrifices that law enforcement officers — and their families — make on a daily basis.
“Know that [police officers] have a family waiting for them at home and show them the respect that they deserve,” Betterton said
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.
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