Days after September 11th, 2001, I opened a hand written letter delivered to my office. At the time I was a two star Chief in the NYPD, Chief of Brooklyn South. The writer expressed his gratitude for what police officers did that day, and remembered those who died. I was a younger man, jumping to conclusions quicker than I try to do these days, and the choppy language of the letter and the writer's reference to thinking that before 9/11 cops were "only out there to harass people," led me to conclude that it was written by a young man, probably in his 20s or 30s, who had been arrested before, or at least experienced negative encounters with cops.
So taken by how the enormity of this horrific event seemed to bring him to a different understanding of police officers, I ran out of my office and asked my staff to do whatever they had to do to find out who wrote this letter, and connect me with him. Within days I was on the phone with a 10 year old boy, Irakadeem Griffith. He had no prior experience with cops, and given his young age, the letter was in fact written perfectly. In fact, because of the message it contained and it came from such a young boy, it was one of the most powerful letters I had yet to read in my career.
That first phone call led to a visit, with members of my staff picking up Ira at his home, a housing development in Brooklyn. Ira's visits with me became visits with Sergeant Richie Gubitosi, my Executive Assistant, and other members of my staff. Ira became a rather frequent visitor to Brooklyn South.
The visits went beyond my friendship with Ira, and it got to a point where I had no idea when he would be coming. They would be set up by Richie, and the team. So often I would pop into the office during a busy day, coming back from someplace, and there was Ira. I'd look up surprised, smile, and just say "Hey Ira!"
Every now and then I would check in with his mom, Rosalind, and chat on the phone. One day, when he was maybe 13 or 14 years old, she shared with me that while both he and her loved his friendships with NYPD, he was often subjected to "cat calls" by the older kids on the grounds of the development when they would see him getting out of the police van. They shouted over to him, "Five O, "Five O!," the typical term used on the street to let others know that cops are around. When I hung up with his mom the visualization of that really struck me. I thought of the pressure Ira could be put under and I thought more broadly, of the pressure so many young people, particularly young boys born into some of our tougher communities, experience growing up.
The years seemed to fly by and the visits with Ira continued, as he grew. I have a lot of fond memories of those years, but what moved me most, was how when he was away at college, toward the end of each break, days before he would go back, he would visit us at Brooklyn South, and then after 2011, me at the Transit Bureau, in downtown Brooklyn. That certainly was a busy period in his life but he made sure he found the time for me.
In 2012 Ira's Mom Rosalind passed away. After I greeted him in the front of the chapel during the viewing, I sat. As I watched him, now the patriarch of the family, greeting friends and loved ones who came to visit, I was struck with the realization that this 10 year old boy who had written me that letter right after September 11th had become a man.
Ira became a teacher and joined AmeriCorps, and he was selected for a school in Detroit, Michigan. He told me this while we were having lunch one day near my office in downtown Brooklyn. I shared with him that Detroit was a very challenging city, and that the education system probably was as well. He looked at me, and with the character I have come to know, and that soft and kind smile he said, "I know Uncle Fox. That's why I'm excited about becoming a teacher there." Ira went out to Detroit, and made a world of difference in the lives of the students he taught. He is now a principal in a "Knowledge is Power Program" School in Newark, New Jersey. This young man who I met when he was 10 years old, and his wife Sharae now raise their adorable son Caius, now two years old.
I opened this column mentioning that it was after September 11th that I got the letter from Irakadeem. I am closing acknowledging that as I write these words, I can feel the solemnity and pain of this time of year, this month, and this week. My nephew, Michael Roberts, FDNY, died that day and I feel the personal pain of his loss, and the communal pain of all of our suffering. But I am sure, I am certain, that if it was not for the pain of that day, Irakadeem Griffith and Joe Fox never would've met. It was September 11th, 2001 that brought us together.
My pain I measure in tears, but the gift of that union, I can never begin to measure.
Joe Fox is a retired NYPD Chief, with over 37 years of experience, motivational speaker, author, business consultant, leadership/life coach, U.S. Department of Justice Medal of Valor Review Board Member, Board of Directors, Rockaway's 9/11/01 Tribute Park, Board of Directors 5Star Life Insurance Company, serving US Military and first responders, social media influencer and digital creator.