When I was a boy my Uncle Eddie would ask me at family gatherings, “Where does your daddy work?” I’d answer proudly, “My daddy doesn’t work; he’s a cop.” Everyone would laugh, but I didn’t know why. Many years later I realized why I answered the way I did. Neighbors regularly came to my father for advice. If their teenage son was on drugs, they came to Walter. If they had a car accident, they came to him to see what they should do next. He seemed to know something about everything in life, and people relied on him. There was something different about my dad. It was in those moments that my dream to become a police officer was born.
40 years ago this July 13th, I raised my right hand and became “Police Officer Joseph Fox, shield number 6583.” Having struggled academically in college, I breezed through the Academy, with high grades – validation that I found a job I loved. I remember my graduation was exciting, but most of it is a blur to me. I guess that’s how we live our lives when we are younger, always excited to take on the next chapter and sometimes not savoring the moment we are in, and the accomplishments we’ve made so far.
About a week into field training I saw my first dead body. Two men working in a bagel store got into an argument and one plunged a 12-inch knife into the other’s stomach. A week later I responded to a home where a woman woke in the morning to find her 25-year-old sister overdosed on the couch. I had to take the rings off her fingers. I had dreams that night that I never want to have again. I was 25 years old with only a month on patrol, and I would be close to death for the rest of my career.
After my field training, I was assigned to the 70 Precinct, Flatbush, where I found a partner who would be my friend for life, Mike Collins. The closest we came to getting shot – that we knew of – was in a hallway of 354 Ocean Ave. We had a fierce struggle with a man who had both hands on the butt of a 9 mm, trying to pull it out of his waistband. Later we learned that he was on bail for a murder charge.
One morning I was working anti-crime with Steve Grossman, and we were first on the scene where a man shot and killed his wife in the lobby of the building where they lived, and then shot himself in the head in a chair in front of their apartment door, which had locked when he chased her down the stairs. When we got into the apartment we found their 10 and 12-year-old daughters, suffocated, lying in rest on a bed, having been laid out in their most beautiful dresses, face-up, hair all done up, with a bunch of photos on either end table next to the bed, like a funeral home viewing. Under a pile of clothing was their 14 old son, whose throat was slashed, ear to ear. We went to a local bar at midnight and talked about it over, and over and over again, until closing time.
As I rose through the ranks I was for the most part removed from the role of first responder, but as my responsibilities increased I was of course still exposed to the pain. I continued to see humanity at its worst, through reports I read and updates and briefings I was given regularly – updates on the search for a serial rapist, violent robberies, murders, domestic abuse, etc.
But pain is not all I experienced in my 37 years. I saw humanity at its very best, in countless young police officers who cared as much about the communities they served as anyone, and more than many. I’ve seen police officers become counselors, social workers, big sisters, and big brothers to young people, just when they needed them most. I love seeing a social media post of a few cops playing basketball with some kids during downtime, or a police officer helping an elderly woman cross the street, but I know that for every one of those stories we hear about, there are hundreds more just like it, not getting the press.
So who are these 700,000 young women and men who raise their right hands and swear an oath as I did 40 years ago? They excitedly sign on to a job where their lives are at risk, always. They can count on being vilified when they use necessary and justified force. They are exposed to trauma and suffering that most people cannot imagine, which they carry with them to their graves. They regularly put on their dress uniforms and line up at the funeral of a fallen brother or sister, feeling helpless.
They are America’s sons and daughters. They believe in humanity and they believe in people. They hurt when they see pain and they choose to spend their lives trying to protect others from harm. They are so special that they passionately live their lives in service, in spite of the risk. The deep calling they have, like all those who serve – our military, doctors and nurses, firefighters, and so many others – is our civilization’s salvation.
Where would we be without them?
Joe Fox is a Motivational Speaker, Leadership & Life Coach, Chief of Staff, Silverseal Security, U.S. Department of Justice Medal of Valor Review Board Member, Board of Directors, 9/11/01 Tribute Park, Board of Directors, 5Star Life Insurance Company, and former NYPD Transit Chief