AUGUSTA — Emergency responders from up and down the eastern seaboard gathered Tuesday at the Maine law enforcement memorial on State Street to launch a 285-mile bicycle tour of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to honor police officers killed in the line of duty and to support their families.

Officer Jason Kooken of the Amesbury, Massachusetts, police and seven other members of his riding party will visit similar memorials in New Hampshire and Vermont during the three-day trek.

Augusta police Chief Robert Gregoire said remembering those killed in the line of duty is important for the men and women who continue to serve in law enforcement.

“It’s a reminder for those new officers, and our older officers, to always be careful,” Gregoire said. “You always have to think ahead.”

Kooken has organized a brief ceremony at each memorial that includes a reading of the names of those who have died in the line of duty.

“We each have our reasons to ride this tour,” Kooken told the representatives of local law enforcement, including the Augusta Police Department, Capitol Police and the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony. “Each of us has a story, much like each officer whose name is engraved upon this monument.”

Kooken’s story includes his own brush with death in 2003, when he and two other Amesbury officers responded to a report of a heavily armed man who was refusing to leave his estranged wife’s home.

“Less than one minute after we arrived, 60 rounds had been exchanged before the man was stopped,” Kooken said. “Each of the officers had rounds pass within inches of us, but the only physical injury any of the officers received was an abrasion on my right hand and forearm.”

The incident took an emotional toll, however, Kooken said. He responded by trying to raise money and awareness for officers killed in the line of duty. The bicycle tour supports the New England chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors, also known as COPS, which provides support for survivors, helps police departments establish line-of-duty death policies and educates the public about the specific problems and needs of those who lose loved ones in the line of duty.

Police officers across the country have been targeted in recent days. The most recent victim, Trooper Joseph Cameron Ponder, 31, of the Kentucky State Police, was shot and killed during a traffic stop. Kooken, who called attention to Ponder during the ceremony, said not all line-of-duty deaths are the result of a confrontation. He mentioned officers in Maine who have died of a medical problem or exposure to weather while helping others.

“Whether it’s a person who is assaulted or rescuing a child in distress, any of these things can and do happen,” Kooken said. “It’s not necessarily the assaults or the risk of assaults that drive us. It’s just our job.”

Gallant’s first bicycle tour took place last year, when he took part in a ride from Berwick to Washington, D.C. The ride began at the memorial of Berwick police Officer Robert Gallant, who in 1982 was struck and killed by a drunken driver while responding to a report of a domestic disturbance. Gallant was walking the woman to safety across the street when he heard the car approaching.

“Officer Gallant gave his life so that woman may live,” Kooken said. “He heroically pushed the woman out of the way and was struck by the car.”

Gallant’s family took part in last year’s ceremony at the memorial. Kooken, after meeting with them, committed to organizing a ride to support COPS New England.

Tuesday’s ceremony included a reading of the names of 83 Maine law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty. James Griffith, who in 1996 was killed in a crash while trying to pursue a speeding car, was among those named. Griffith was the husband of Maine Warden Service chaplain Kate Braestrup, who offered the closing benediction on Tuesday. Braestrup said that the name of God in Judaism and Islam sounds like breathing.

“You guys are going to be doing a lot of heavy breathing,” Braestrup said to the riders. “You are constantly saying a prayer.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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