And Monday night, more people were drawn to the annual service at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial than ever before; the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 made 2001 one of the deadliest ever for police.
Last year, 230 officers across the nation were killed on duty. Not since 1974 have there been more fatalities.
"Our citizens need to understand that there is no challenge too difficult and no danger too great for our police officers," said Craig Floyd, chairman of the memorial.
"If you need help, they will come. Certainly, there is no better example of this truism than the valor displayed last September at the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania and at the World Trade Center. Seventy-two officers died that day - the deadliest in law enforcement history."
The evening was filled with the stories of those men and women who rushed into the World Trade Center even after the first passenger jet slammed into one of the towers. Hundreds of families and friends of those who lost a loved one sat outdoors in a courtyard under a hazy yellow sky as the slain police were honored.
They lit candles as the sun set, holding flags and sometimes each other. Government officials spoke of how the nation could better protect police officers on the job.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the government must invest in ways to help local police detect and respond to terrorist attacks, including high-tech communication equipment.
"If we secure the hometown, then the homeland is secure," Ridge said. "And no one knows the hometown like that local police officer, who walks the streets. We can protect our protectors."
Ridge also told the story of New York Police Sgt. Rodney Gillis, who led several officers on a rescue mission into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Gillis had also jumped from a helicopter onto the top of a World Trade Center tower when terrorists set off a bomb in 1991.
"He was off duty when the plane hit," Ridge said. "As a professional, he didn't consider himself off duty when his presence was needed at the time of crisis ... His mission, some would say his passion, was to rescue people."
The names of those who died last year have been etched in stone at the memorial, two tree-lined "paths of remembrance" that take up three acres of park land near a courthouse complex off Pennsylvania.
Jessica Longley, whose friend Stephen Driscoll was killed in the attack, wiped away tears and consoled a child as she watched.
"These men and women weren't any different than us, but they chose to run into the building instead of run away," Longley said. "They were human and they knew it. That's what makes them heroes."
By Christopher Newton