Editor's note: Before WDRB reporter Toni Konz was a journalist, she spent four years as a law enforcement officer in Hattiesburg, Miss. She returned this week to attend the funerals of two Hattiesburg police officers who were killed in the line of duty on May 9.

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDRB) -- The candles have been lit, the flags have been flying at half staff and the raw emotion being felt by this close-knit community following the murders of two of its police officers is at an all-time high.

It's been five days since Benjamin Deen, 34, and Liquori Tate, 25, were shot and killed following a traffic stop and their deaths have hit home for many in the Hub City, a sprawling college town that is home to the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University.

"This has been nothing like I have experienced before," said Amanda Miller, a lifelong resident of Hattiesburg. "Lots of sadness, lots of tears. I didn't even know these officers, but I feel like a piece of my heart has been taken out.And now I just feel so angry. How does something like this happen?"

An estimated 3,000 people attended Deen's funeral at Temple Baptist Church on Thursday. Of that number about 1,700 were uniformed police officers from as far away as New York, Wisconsin and Canada. Thousands more lined the 13-mile route from the church to the cemetery, many wearing blue ribbons and holding American flags.

More than 1,000 people turned out for Deen's visitation Wednesday night, some waiting as long as two hours to pay their respects. Another 1,500 attended a joint memorial service held Monday for the two officers at the Lake Terrace Convention Center.

Among those in attendance at Deen's funeral on Thursday were the parents and sister of Tate, whose visitation is Friday and the funeral on Saturday.

"We just had to be here to support them," said Youlander Ross, Tate's mother, as she fought back tears. "As hard as this is, we just had to be here."

That seems to be the sentiment of most people here, despite the pain and sorrow running deep in their hearts.

The incident -- and the aftermath -- have shaken everyone from florists and business owners to the local funeral director and the young journalist who started reporting on the murders almost immediately after they happened. 

"This has been so difficult for me," said Ryan Moore, a reporter with WDAM-TV, the local NBC affiliate in Hattiesburg. "I knew Deen as a friend and I was raised in a law enforcement family."

Moore's father, Larry Moore, was an officer with the Hattiesburg Police Department for 22 years. Larry Moore was friends and worked closely with Jackie Dole Sherrill, the last Hattiesburg officer to die in the line of duty in 1984, prior to the deaths of Deen and Tate. At Sherrill's funeral, Larry Moore presented her husband with her badge.

"This has been the hardest thing I have had to cover in my career," he said. "This is my hometown."

Hulett-Winstead Funeral Home director Jason Ross was tasked with bringing Deen's body from the Mississippi State Crime Lab back to Hattiesburg on Monday.

"I am normally not a emotional person and as a funeral director, I have a tendency to shoulder my tears, but the drive back to Hattiesburg was heart wrenching," Ross wrote on his Facebook page. "From the moment I pulled away from the crime lab, I was blown away by the outpouring of support shown by not only law enforcement, but the fire departments, EMS personnel and the lay citizens who stood out in the rain to salute a dear hero."

How else has the city of Hattiesburg responded to these murders? Waitresses and convenience store clerks are wearing blue ribbons on their shirts and many business have blue ribbons attached to their signs or front doors. Residents have decorated their mailboxes with ribbons and flags of local law enforcement officers who live in their neighborhood. People are displaying condolences on the back windshields of their cars.

And at night time, many neighborhoods and subdivisions are illuminated in blue as homeowners have replaced their traditional light bulbs with blue ones in honor of the fallen police officers. A local business -- Batteries Plus Bulbs -- offered free blue bulbs to all those who wanted one and has had to order more to keep up with the demand. 

This week has been especially difficult for the 105 sworn officers who remain in the Hattiesburg Police Department, but the response of this community has made the heartbreak a little easier.

"This has been so incredibly hard, but what I have seen this week has really helped me," said Lt. Harris Tapp, who serves as the traffic commander for the Hattiesburg Police Department. "So many bad things have been said about police officers over the past few months and it's been difficult because you start to wonder if people really think that way."

But Tapp, who helped arrange the transport and procession arrangements for his fallen brothers, said he now feels that isn't the case.

"We were driving by and saw so many people," he said. "Old people, young people. Black people, white people, Children were crying and people were holding signs and flags. It gives me hope. I think this community has really spoken to the world in support of its police officers and that means the world to us."

Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree has watched his city come together this week and says he hopes it's something that will resonate for a long time.

"I think it shows you that despite that fact that we are hurting, we are all trying to heal together," Dupree said. "This incident hasn't divided our city, it has united us."

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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