I am a retired chief of the New York Police Department. 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 mourn and lay 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, our nation struggling with isolation, fear, and uncertainty, George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis. Riots erupted in the city, and Mayor Jacob Frey ordered the surrender of the 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 crescendoed. In New York, that July, then-mayor Bill de Blasio disbanded the NYPD’s anti-crime unit. Those were the teams of plain-clothed officers who focused on violence reduction and were trained to identify and arrest people with guns. It was another signal that laws and public safety were being put on the back burner and 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 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, one-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 shutdowns, helplessly watched thieves clear their shelves, fill up backpacks, and brazenly walk out of their stores. The shootings continued, including shootings at iconic locations: inside Peter Luger’s Restaurant at Times Square — where a vacationing toddler was hit by a bullet. 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.” For 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 11, 2001).
“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 none was 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 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 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 plead 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 non-white people, 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 people’s lives at risk for too long. Americans in too many cities, and mostly non-white communities, 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 with more than 37 years of experience in law enforcement, and as a motivational speaker, author, leadership/life coach, chief of staff at Silverseal Security, U.S. Department of Justice Medal of Valor Review Board member, on the board of directors for Rockaway’s 9/11/01 Tribute Park, and on the board of directors at 5Star Life Insurance Company, serving U.S. military and first responders.