WEST WINDSOR — The quad of Mercer County Community College was a sea of blue as hundreds of law enforcement members from as far away as Alaska came together Tuesday to start Chapter 10's part of the Annual Police Unity Tour.

Chapter President John Mehl, who also serves as an officer with the Toms River Police Department, led the opening ceremonies before the riders kicked off the first day that would take them down to Atlantic City on their way to Washington, D.C.

In addition to having his actual family there to help cheer on the men and women taking on this daunting challenge, Mehl said he was also glad to be part of the law enforcement family taking on the ride in honor of those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

The annual Police Unity Tour started in 1997 thanks to Florham Park Police Officer Patrick M. Montoure along with 17 other riders. Today, the event includes more than 2200 members nationwide including bikers, support staff, and others who coordinate the trips from all over the country. The tour has raised more than $20 million for the National Law Enforcement Officers memorial Fund.

"It's humbling. It's a pretty amazing experience," he said as he got ready for his 14th tour. "When yous see your family like this, people that have been through these traumatic experiences and representing not only our brothers and sisters in law enforcement, but representing the law enforcement community as a whole, it's a humbling experience, something that most of these guys and girls will treasure their entire careers."

The ceremony included families of officers killed in the line of duty being presented golden roses. The theme of family continued from there as officers who lost colleagues in the line of duty got on their bikes and prepared for the hundreds of miles of riding ahead of them.

One of the members of the team from Howell Township was Nicholas Castellano of the Ocean Township Police Department. Castellano is the brother of former New Jersey State Trooper Marc Castellano, who died in the line of duty in 2010.

"It would be very important either way, but it definitely has more of a family connection because of my situation and my family's situation," he said.

Castellano also said having thousands of people at the finish line to share the experience with makes it that much more special for him as he sees his brother's name engraved on the memorial.

"It's still surreal. The pain's still there," he said. "Ultimately I know he's looking down on all of us and he's proud that we're doing something like this."

Teams of all sizes gathered at the Mercer County Police Academy from local departments to county groups and beyond. There were seven members of the Princeton Police Department taking part and Chief Nicholas Sutter said he was proud to see them riding with fellow law enforcement.

"It's a real great symbol for the dedication and brother and sisterhood of the police forces that come together to honor the officers that have given the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "It signifies real dedication that we have to our profession and to the brother and sisterhood."

Led by a motorcade of motorcycles the hundreds of riders departed the college on Tuesday morning knowing they were taking on a big challenge for a cause much bigger than themselves with thousands more people waiting for them.

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