For 2 Camden County officers, police deaths hit too close to home

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Robert Wilson III (left), Philadelphia officer, was killed last year in a GameStop store robbery. Maj. Greg Barney (right), from Lawnside, was on the force in Riverdale, Ga., for 25 years.

At first, Brandon Kersey refused to believe it.

A relative had just told him that his cousin, a longtime police officer in Georgia, had been shot.

It was early February, and less than a year had passed since Kersey lost another cousin on duty: Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III. "It was Robbie," his brother told him at the time, before Kersey heard Wilson's name on TV later and cried.

This time: "Barney just got shot."

It was Greg Barney, a 50-year-old police major in Riverdale, who grew up in the South Jersey community of Lawnside, where Kersey - a 27-year-old Camden County police sergeant - also was raised.

In the texting group Kersey and Barney had with other family and friends, a few of the guys had messaged Barney: "Yo G Money," his nickname, "you good?"

Barney didn't respond.

Kersey, a police officer for six years, was headed to his second police funeral. Another role model taken away.

"You always hear [about] officers getting shot, killed, and it always does something to you, because you have to understand that that's the field of work you're in," Kersey said. "But once it's somebody close to you, that makes it 10 times worse."

Kersey's family has deep roots in law enforcement. Another of his cousins, Michael Harper, also 27, is a Camden County police detective.

The two have always been close. They were changed in diapers next to each other as kids, attended the same schools, and joined Camden's police force at the same time. Harper's birthday is in March; Kersey's is in April. Kersey lives in Magnolia, Harper in Lawnside.

"No one's closer than me and this guy," Kersey said on a recent evening at police headquarters, sitting next to Harper.

Harper was among the first people Kersey called after learning Barney was shot Feb. 11. A fleeing suspect, they would learn, had shot Barney after authorities tried to search a home.

Kersey's tone during the call said it all.

"You could hear it in his voice," said Harper. Barney was also his cousin. "I'm like, 'Nah, Brandon. Nah, Brandon. It's not true.' "

The two had known Barney as "G Money," a nickname they said came before their time. Barney was flashy, they said, recalling an old picture of him wearing a thick gold chain and sitting on the red 1986 Camaro IROC he loved.

In the group texts, Barney, Harper, and Kersey cracked jokes and exchanged police stories. The young officers looked up to Barney, a 25-year police veteran.

On Feb. 20, during Barney's funeral procession in Georgia, Harper and Kersey saw people on the side of the roads crying, saluting, and holding a hand over their hearts.

"It made me proud to be a cop," said Harper, who flew down with Kersey. Six other Camden County police officers and supervisors also drove to Georgia to show support.

The day after the funeral, Harper and Kersey visited Barney's wife and 15-year-old twins at their home. One of the twins asked about the officers' jobs - did they like it? How were they chosen for it? They chatted and then played basketball in the driveway. Anything the family needed, Harper and Kersey told them, call.

Eleven months earlier, Kersey had spoken at Wilson's funeral in Philadelphia.

People said Kersey and Wilson looked alike as kids. They attended family reunions each year at the Shore, and tried to keep in touch outside those trips.

Wilson was performing a security check and buying a birthday gift for his son at a GameStop store in March when two men tried to rob the store. The men exchanged gunfire with Wilson, who fired back even as multiple bullets pierced his body. Police said Wilson didn't stop firing until a bullet struck him in the head.

Kersey remembered Wilson the way many others did: A police officer who fought until the end. A hero.

"The way he went out was definitely, if my time comes, how I would like to go out," Kersey said, because, "he had the ability to fight."

Harper, while only indirectly related to Wilson, said Wilson's death made him think about the store checks he and other officers have regularly done in Camden.

"Never, ever did I think as I'm doing that business check, people would be coming in, trying to rob it, and getting into a gunfight," he said. "Never did that cross my mind. And I thought about Robbie's situation and I was like, 'Wow, that definitely could have been me.' "

That's why Harper and Kersey are more aware than ever of their surroundings - eyeing any activity that may seem off, even if only slightly - and stress safety to other officers. They don't want to attend any more police funerals.

mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc