I walked into a prison for the first time in October of 1980. I needed a job and the prison had a job opening. That was the first time I had been inside, and I talked to the warden and was scheduled for the entrance exam. A week later I was hired, on my wife's birthday. I left that prison six months later and went out on the street after some rudimentary training. By my feeble math, that was 34 years ago, and I'm still wearing a badge and carrying a gun.
Over time, I became a supervisor, responsible for the lives and actions of people who worked the streets. During my career I've lost three officers, two murdered and one who died tragically in an accident at the height of his career. To this day, I mourn every one. I've also been to funerals of other officers, guys I knew who worked in adjoining agencies. I've buried cops. It's hard. But every cop has buried other cops, and we know it's part of the job.
Over the last several weeks, with the grand jury reports from Missouri and New York, the nation seems to be going through a conversation about the police. That conversation has culminated in riots, in arson and destruction, in protests calling for dead police officers. We now have those two officers in New York, good policemen from all accounts, who were ambushed in a violent attack. I grieve for them and their families, just as I've grieved for other friends.
Nothing speaks to my own mortality like burying a police officer, yet it is easy to draw the wrong lessons in the outpouring of grief over a senseless death. Death is often sensless and many times conceals itself behind a cloak of blame. The Missouri cop pulled the trigger on the "gentle giant", but Michael Brown set in motion the chain of events that lead to his death. His death was senseless, but the officer committed no crime. The grand jury report makes that crystal clear.
Eric Garner died as a result of police interaction, but similarly, a grand jury held that the police officers were not criminally liable for his demise. From what I've read in the public reports, Garner's medical problems and poor health contributed to his death more than anything else. The police officers sent to bring Garner in could not have known that he had asthma or any of his other medical conditions. Garner knew and set in motion the events that led to his own death. It's tragic, but not criminally culpable.
Likewise, the chain of events we've seen in New York, where people ranted, demonstrated and marched, often chanting for dead police, Heated rhetoric to be sure, but they are not to blame for the deaths of those two good officers on Saturday. Likewise, Mayor deBlasio. his rhetoric has been antagonistic to the police.The officers who work in his city have a right to be angry and hurt, but deBlasio isn't to blame. That blame rests solely with the coward who murdered his girlfriend, got on a bus and came to New York with the stated goal of ambushing two police officers. In a supreme act of cowardice, he stole from the good citizens of New York the closure of an arrest and a public trial. We'll never be able to plumb the depths of his depravity, to learn what motivated him to act in the manner that proved a tipping point. More the shame.
There are officers who will quit the force in New York after this tragedy, just as there are always officers who quit every force after a line-of-duty death. Don't judge them. We don't know what motivations they have and we're a volunteer force. Let them go with our blessings.
Then, strive to be a better cop. Review your use of force guidelines, talk with your buddies, have a sit-down, if necessary with your Use-of-Force instructor. Learn the lessons, certainly, but remember that 99 percent of the citizens you encounter are on your side. We still have to stand the line, to be there when the citizens need us. It's hard to bury a buddy and it's harder sometimes to pin on the badge and get back on the beat, but it's a hard job and we do it. If it was easy, anyone could be a cop.