TOLEDO, Ohio — Humor is Officer Mitchael Vanderhorst's weapon of choice.
“I saw him opening a fresh Gatorade, so I tapped the brakes pretty hard, and he spilled it all over himself," Vanderhorst said, laughing to himself. "We just kinda looked at each other and it broke the tension, because that’s how me and Brandon were. He just started laughing."
For eight months, he and his partner Officer Brandon Stalker patrolled Toledo’s streets.
"We would walk into calls together, walk out of calls together," he remembered.
Their brotherly bond started in the Toledo Police Academy in 2018. Stalker joined a week late after another cadet dropped out.
Academy training instructor Sgt. Leslie Cook remembers Brandon didn't draw attention to himself, and she said that's how every cadet should act. She believes Brandon genuinely wanted to be better, and he took her corrections and criticism without pushback. As he and his partner Mitchael grew together, they would often back other officers up without being called on by dispatchers.
“They wanted to be busy, help everybody out, make sure everybody was okay, and that’s something you notice as a supervisor. Somebody’s not just sitting back waiting to be told what to do," Cook explained.
Brandon was more than just a partner, he was a true friend.
“He would come over to the house, and I never asked him twice. I just said ‘hey I’m putting in a new floor,’ and he said he was coming over. I moved into our new house, and he said ‘hey I’m coming over to help you move.’ I went to his diaper party. We hung out," Vanderhorst said. "That’s the kind of guy he was.”
More disarming than their guns or tasers, was Brandon’s secret weapon:
“He just had that huge smile, that goofy laugh. Nobody else is gonna match, and that’s hard not to have," Vanderhorst said, his smile fading.
“I thought there was no way it was happening again, and just kept telling myself he was going to be fine," Cook paused, her voice trailing off. "Obviously that wasn’t the case."
In the evening hours of Jan. 18, 2021, Brandon was shot. The young father was working to keep a perimeter safe during a SWAT standoff. A short time later, doctors would confirm everyone’s worst fears: another Toledo officer killed in the line of duty.
Just seven months earlier, Officer Anthony Dia was killed while serving Toledo.
Mitchael found himself saying goodbye not just to two police classmates, but two partners, in less than a year.
“That final walk with Brandon, that was tough," Vanderhorst said, his voice wavering. It’s just hard to realize 'hey this is the final time we’re walking together,' so yeah."
Laying one of your best friends to rest would be enough to make anyone rethink their career choice, but not this officer.
“I just try to do the best I can every day, because he genuinely loved this job," Vanderhorst explained. "This is 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 courageous heart is speaking in a profession where silence is seen as strength.
“That leads us back to the whole mental health thing," he said, "because if I wouldn’t have talked to somebody about it, if I didn’t have the family in the other officers, absolutely I would have, 100% I would have gotten to that point [of quitting the force or experiencing a deep depression.]”
He believes the deaths of two officers in such a short time is forcing many within the Toledo Police Department to confront their own mental health struggles, to realize when they're not okay. He hopes important conversations will continue within and outside the department.
Mitchael is not the only one facing his own mortality. Leslie remembered being pregnant when she found out Toledo had lost a second officer. She believes policing is a calling you have to 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 just puts it in the front of your brain every night when you leave that," Cook paused, her voice softening. "I might not be here."
Mitchael feels his family, his wife and two kids keep him grounded. He wouldn't trade them for anything.
"It's nice to have that to go home to. I'm gonna come out here and do my job, then I'm going to play tea party because that's what I have to do," Vanderhorst said, laughing.
Each parent chooses to serve this Ohio community despite the risks. And Mitchael likes to joke that being his partner is the riskiest job Toledo Police has to offer.
“All fooling aside, there really are dangerous jobs, but I'm 0-for-2 so..." Vanderhorst chuckled, his voice trailing off, overtaken by thought.
As he reflects on his partner’s legacy one year since his death...
“I aim to be half of the character he was," Vanderhorst paused. "That light of the room kind of character. I'm not just saying this because we’re doing the interview, that’s who Brandon was. You weren’t not going to laugh if he was laughing.”
Officer Mitchael Vanderhorst plans to draw their favorite weapon every day: a good sense of humor.