Toledo Police Officer Mitchael Vanderhorst shares what his police partner meant to him on the first anniversary of his death in the line of duty.
TOLEDO, Ohio — Humor is Officer Mitchael Vanderhorst’s weapon of choice.
“I saw him open a new Gatorade, so I braked pretty hard, and he flipped over it,” Vanderhorst said, laughing to himself. “We just looked at each other a little bit and that broke the tension, because that’s how me and Brandon were. He just laughed.”
For eight months, he and his partner Officer Brandon Stalker patrolled the streets of Toledo.
“We would go in calls together, go out calls together,” he recalled.
Their brotherly bond began at the Toledo Police Academy in 2018. Stalker joined a week late after another cadet dropped out.
RELATED: Remembering Officer Brandon Stalker One Year Later
Academy Training Instructor Sgt. Leslie Cook recalls Brandon not calling attention to himself, and she said that’s how every cadet should act. She believes Brandon really wanted to be better, and he took her corrections and criticisms without backing down. As he and his partner Mitchael grew together, they often supported other officers without being called out by dispatchers.
“They wanted to be busy, helping everyone, making sure everyone was okay, and that’s something you notice as a supervisor. Someone doesn’t just wait to be told what to do,” Cook explained.
Brandon was more than just a partner, he was a true friend.
“He was coming home and I never asked him twice. I just said “hey, I’m laying a new floor” and he said he was coming. I moved into our new house, and he was like “hey, I’m coming to help you move”. I went to her diaper party. We hung around,” Vanderhorst said. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”
More disarming than their pistols or tasers, was Brandon’s secret weapon:
“He just had this huge smile, this goofy laugh. Nobody else is going to match, and that’s hard not to have,” Vanderhorst said, his smile fading.
“I thought there was no way this would happen again, and I kept telling myself he would be fine,” Cook paused, his voice trailing off. “Obviously it wasn’t.”
On the evening of January 18, 2021, Brandon was shot. The young father was working to provide perimeter security during a SWAT confrontation. Shortly after, doctors confirmed everyone’s worst fears: another Toledo officer killed in the line of duty.
RELATED: ‘We in Toledo are still in mourning and will be for a long time to come’ | TPD Chief and Mayor Discuss Events Surrounding Officer Stalker’s Fatal Shooting
Just seven months earlier, Officer Anthony Dia had been killed while serving in Toledo.
Mitchael found himself saying goodbye to not just two police classmates, but two partners, in less than a year.
“That last walk with Brandon, it was tough,” Vanderhorst said, his voice wavering. It’s just hard to realize ‘hey, this is the last time we walk together’, so yeah.”
Giving one of your best friends a rest would be enough to make anyone rethink their career choice, but not this officer.
“I just try to do my best every day, because he really loved this job,” Vanderhorst explained. “It’s what he loved to do…so to honor him, I have to keep doing it the way he loved to do it.”
A police badge worn over a grieving heart. And now a brave heart speaks in a profession where silence is seen as a strength.
“It comes back to the whole issue of mental health,” he said, “because if I hadn’t told somebody about it, if I hadn’t had the family of the other officers, absolutely I would have, 100% I would have come to this [of quitting the force or experiencing a deep depression.]”
He thinks the death of two officers in such a short time is forcing many members of the Toledo Police Department to come to terms with their own mental health issues, to realize that they are not doing well. He hopes important conversations will continue inside and outside the department.
Mitchael isn’t the only one dealing with his own mortality. Leslie remembers being pregnant when she found out Toledo had lost a second officer. She believes that the police is a vocation that you should know is for you.
“I went on maternity leave and had to come back, and you already know that’s part of the job, it puts it right in front of your brain every night when you leave that,” Cook trailed off, his voice softening. “I couldn’t be here.”
Mitchael feels that his family, his wife and two children keep him grounded. He wouldn’t trade them for anything.
“It’s good to have this to go home. I’m going to come here and do my job and then I’m going to play tea because that’s what I have to do,” Vanderhorst said with a laugh.
Each parent chooses to serve this Ohio community despite the risks. And Mitchael likes to joke that being his partner is the riskiest job the Toledo police can offer.
“All joking aside, there are definitely some dangerous jobs out there, but I’m 0 for 2 so…” Vanderhorst chuckled, his voice trailing off, his thoughts overwhelmed.
As he reflects on his partner’s legacy a year after his death…
“I aim to be half the character he was,” Vanderhorst paused. “That light of the kind of character in the play. I’m not saying that just because we’re doing the interview, it’s who Brandon was. You weren’t going to laugh if he laughed.
Officer Mitchael Vanderhorst plans to draw his favorite weapon every day: a sense of humor.