BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum is holding its 34th Annual Candlelight Vigil Friday evening in Washington, D.C., kicking off three days of activities honoring fallen officers and deputies.

You are probably well acquainted with the name of one local man being honored – Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Phillip Campas, killed in a SWAT standoff last July. Another local name is going up on that memorial this weekend as well: Bakersfield CHP Officer Scott Merritt.

Last year was the deadliest for active-duty law enforcement in nearly a century – 458 local, state, tribal and federal officers killed in the line of duty in 2021, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum’s annual fatalities report.

But the leading cause was not felonious assault, which killed 62 officers, including Campas, not traffic-related incidents, which killed 58 officers. No – the number one cause of death among law enforcement officers last year was COVID-19.

Three hundred one – more than half of the overall total. And that number is expected to grow as more COVID-19 deaths are reported.

One of those officers was Merritt, who died Sept. 10, 2021 and was just 42 years old.

Merritt grew up in Wasco and graduated as salutatorian from Wasco High School in 1997. He began his ultimate career with the CHP in 2005, first in Santa Cruz then in 2010 Bakersfield. In 2014, he became a Drug Enforcement Agency task force officer. 

His wife Shanon and children Madison and Nolan are in Washington for this weekend’s events.

Merritt’s cousin, Jillian Beene, says they were like sister and brother.

“He loved what he did,” Beene said. “He was passionate about what he did. He never failed at anything. He didn’t know how to fail. In sports, in school, like anything. He didn’t know how to give up. He was always on top.”

Law enforcement authorities say it’s difficult to determine the likelihood an officer contracted COVID-19 during the commission of their official job duties, and vaccination status was not included in the annual report.

Police departments and unions in cities across the country have pushed back against mandates requiring vaccines for public employees, filing lawsuits and threatening resignation. Merritt’s cousin Beene said she “didn’t think” Merritt was vaccinated but was not certain.

But this weekend it’s not about those numbers. For the Merritt family and those close to them, it’s about one man. A husband, a father, a son, a colleague, Scott Merritt – one of 458 law enforcement officers taken before their time.