Law enforcement officers consider it their duty to protect and serve their communities and, when they're off duty, some continue to serve.
Nearly a dozen officers beat the Panama City streets Wednesday morning to keep the flame alive for some very special athletes. They were participants in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run to benefit Special Olympics Florida.
A steady rain began falling just as the group left the Publix parking lot in Lynn Haven, but it wasn't enough to extinguish the flame atop the torch. "Our law enforcement officers are the guardians of the flame of hope which symbolizes the hope that Special Olympics brings to people with intellectual disabilities," said Laura Collins, manager of the statewide relay.
More than 300 agencies are participating in the event, a 1,500 mile relay through 66 Florida counties. The relay will culminate on May 17 when the torch reaches Lake Buena Vista, site of the 2013 Summer Games.
"It's just nice to get with a lot of fellow employees and other police officers and run for a cause," said Major Mark Aviles of the Panama City Police Department.
The runners headed north on Highway 77 to 23rd Street, where the finish line came into view. Along the way, motorists waved and honked their horns as a sign or respect and gratitude for the runners.
Dominique Leverette, a Special Olympian, barely broke a sweat and said the rain made the run pleasant. "It actually made it a little easier... you cooled down a little more," he said.
As the group came down the final stretch, Special Olympian Justin Rigdon joined in – first as a runner and then as a coach. "Y' all can do it!" Rigdon yelled.
"We like to have athletes involved because I like the officers to understand who they're doing this for," said Collins.
Thirty-eight minutes and 3.6 miles after they started, the runners arrived at the Publix on 23rd Street where they were greeted by store employees offering sandwiches and cool drinks.
Collins said law enforcement officers across the state raise help raise awareness and thousands of dollars for Special Olympics. "I think it's fabulous that people with such demanding jobs would come out and do something like this out of the goodness of their hearts," she said.
The torch will be escorted through Gulf County on Thursday and Franklin County on Friday.