The O’Neill family, whose members have proudly served on the Denver Police Department for 76 years, was honored by the Denver Police Museum during this year’s National Police Week.
An unbroken lineage of O’Neills has worn the badge since 1947. The commitment to public service runs deep within their blood, a calling passed down from one generation to the next.
Mike O’Neill Sr., reflecting on his career with the Denver Police Department, recalled a heartfelt moment when a citizen expressed her gratitude for his service.
“She gave me a big hug and said thank you for being here, thank God you are here,” he told CBS Colorado.
The legacy began with Tom O’Neill Sr., the first O’Neill to serve on the force. He had a distinguished 25-year career, serving as a detective, sergeant and later division chief as well as being president of the Denver Police Protective Association.
Mike O’Neill Sr., driven by the same sense of duty instilled by his father, dedicated 37 years to the Denver Police Department, starting as a patrol officer and retiring as a commander, as well as serving as a division chief. His wife, Suzie, was one of the department’s early female officers, serving in the Juvenile Division from 1970 to 1973.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Mike Sr.’s brother, Tom O’Neill Jr., also served as a Denver police officer from 1971 to 2004 in the Traffic and Metro K-9 divisions. Now, their children proudly follow in their footsteps. Mike Jr. is a sergeant in District 4 and Tom Jr.’s son, Bryan, is a sergeant in District 3 and vice president of the Denver Police Protective Association. Melissa O’Neill-Varela has also continued the family tradition in her distinguished career as a dispatcher with the Castle Rock Police Department, where her husband, Sam Varela, is an officer.
According to the O’Neill family, their decision to take the oath stems from a shared desire to serve their community, as fostered by countless conversations around the family dinner table.
“There’s not very many families where you get together on Thanksgiving and my uncle is talking about how he got to escort the pope through Mile High Stadium and my dad is talking about how he did a motorcade for the vice president to the airport and grandpa is talking about how he was hanging out with Elvis Presley and Jerry Kennedy,” Bryan said.
While these tales were undoubtedly exciting, the true inspiration for both Mike Jr. and Bryan was witnessing the joy their fathers and grandfather found in helping others.
“Someone is always going to call 9-1-1, and we are always going to go. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what we signed up for,” Mike Jr. said.
Despite evolving policies and varying public sentiment toward law enforcement, their dedication to the community remains stronger than ever.
“A lot of things have changed in society, a lot of things have changed in policing over the last 10 years, I think policing has changed more in ten years then the last 60 years combined, it’s just a matter of adapting to those changes,” Bryan said.
Now, as they raise their own children, it is likely that the next generation of O’Neills will soon follow in their footsteps.
Surrounded by his grandchildren, Mike Sr. playfully asked, “Who wants to be a cop?” A young hand shot up.
“Oh good,” he laughed.
In addition to the recognition by the museum, the City of Denver also honored the O’Neills during National Police Week with a proclamation for their combined total of more than 150 years of dedicated public service.