I have learned that after we experience something in life and we look back, we have a clearer understanding of what actually happened. During the last two years police officers have been vilified, assaulted and murdered at levels we have not seen in decades. Today, our hearts are broken as our city and nation mourns and lays to rest two American heroes, Police Officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora. It is in their honor, that I reflect on how I believe we got here.
On May 25, 2020, months into the pandemic, as our nation was struggling with isolation, fear and uncertainty, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Riots erupted in the city and Mayor Jacob Frey ordered the surrender of the city’s 3rd Police Precinct, and all the officers were ordered to evacuate. The building was taken over by the mob – an unprecedented event in American policing. Riots spread across our country and the anti-police rhetoric reached a crescendo. In July, then Mayor Bill De Blasio, disbanded the NYPD’s anti-crime unit – teams of plain-clothed officers, who focused on violence reduction, trained to identify and arrest people with guns. This was yet another signal that laws and public safety were being put on the back burner, and it was heard loud and clear by all, especially those who would carry guns in our streets, and use them. Shootings and murders skyrocketed.
Surprised that there was no outcry over the significant increase in the number of people shot and killed, I thought to myself that it would take a horrible tragedy to get the attention of the mayor and other elected officials in our city, and move them to stop tolerating lawlessness. A couple of weeks later 1-year-old Davell Gardner was shot and killed while sitting in his stroller in Brooklyn. That horrific crime would surely be the catalyst, I thought. But I was wrong. In the months to come the shootings and murders continued. Graffiti, a thing of the past, resurfaced all throughout our city. Cars recklessly sped through our streets and on the highways. Business owners, who had already suffered from the crippling impact of the pandemic shut downs, watched helplessly as thieves cleared their shelves, filling up backpacks and brazenly walking out without consequence. The shootings continued, including at iconic locations: inside Peter Luger‘s Restaurant, a vacationing toddler shot in Times Square. Still no outrage.
So how did protests, righteous calls for racial equality, justice for all and being treated fairly and humanely by police officers across the nation devolve into years of gains in public safety being wiped out? To a great extent, words. And words matter.
“An attack on a police officer is an attack on society. It’s an attack on all of us.” As long as I can remember that was something multiple elected officials said every time a police officer was seriously injured or God forbid, killed in the line of duty. But since May, 2020, I have not heard it said once. It’s not a slogan, not a cliché; it means something. It’s profoundly true. If as a society we tolerate police officers being attacked, then it’s only a matter of time before we lose everything. The fact that too many mayors and governors abandoned that important truth, while police officers were under attack, signaled those who would commit crimes that there would be no outrage if a police officer was assaulted. And they were, in record numbers. Last year 73 police officers were murdered, the highest number since 1995 (with the exception of 2001, which included those killed on September 11th).
“Reform?” Two words I never heard in the same sentence before – “police reform” – were used by elected officials and social media constantly. Those words together were another pernicious signal that all police departments, and therefore all police officers, were in need of reform, as if each was inherently flawed, and therefore were not to be respected, and certainly never to be appreciated.
“Defund the Police.” Those are three more words I had never heard in the same sentence before, until they were painted on signs on sticks and carried by demonstrators through the streets, and graffitied on the walls of government buildings. And once again, legislators followed the lead of the protesters in the streets , and as if to punish all police officers for the actions of several in Minneapolis, they took billions of dollars out of police budgets. But they forgot one simple formula; If you take money out of a bank account you have less money. If you take money from public safety, citizens are not as safe.
There is hope, because there is a way back to where we need to be. It requires three simple steps. Here they are:
Prosecutors – do your job! Do not try to change society. You are not legislators; you are put there to prosecute crimes. Absolutely carry out policies that insist on fairness and justice, but remember, the system fails, and our society will fall without you keeping your eye on public safety and the rights and welfare of all of our citizens, including crime victims.
Elected officials – find the emotional intelligence to reverse some of the legislation you have passed these last few years. It has decriminalized too many crimes, and criminalized policing. Imagine if either of you could be immediately fired and worse, charged with a crime, for protecting yourself when being physically assaulted, because a part of your body touched any part of the chest area of the person attacking you, because of the rush to pass the “Chokehold Law.” Turn back the legislation that makes it more difficult for police officers to do their jobs. Lives are at stake.
All of us – vote! Voting is more than a right; it’s an obligation. I have a question for those who do not vote, which is about 50% of the eligible voters in a presidential election, 75% of us in local mayoral elections and even more in the city council races. Why would you let other people make decisions that concern your safety, your family’s safety and your future? And I plea to those who do vote; always remember that your ballot has consequences.
When George Floyd was killed there were righteous outcries for policing in our country that better serves all of its citizens, better training, better tactics, equality and fairness and equal opportunity for all. However, the result has been many more people shot and killed, mostly people of color, and a significant increase in deaths of police officers. Whatever your politics, no one wanted this. Too many people in positions of power have experimented with policies that have put peoples lives at risk for too long. Americans in too many cities, and mostly communities of color, are less safe today. Now is the time to stop. We owe it to them. We owe it to our children. And we owe it to men and women like Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, who lived and died protecting us.
Let this pendulum turn back to sanity. Let that be part of their legacy.
Joe Fox is a retired NYPD Chief, over 37 years experience, motivational speaker, author, leadership/life coach, Chief of Staff, Silverseal Security, a global company, 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.