I know this is a longer piece than normal, but I hope you will take the time to read this to the very end. And, if you think this is an important message, PLEASE share this to your networks.
Edit: For some, perhaps, unexpected responses to this piece, please check out this post.
Just days before my brother David was murdered, we had hatched a plan. He would fly into New York City from Texas and meet me at Newark Airport to pick up our older brother Boris and niece Valerie who were arriving from Taiwan. Our goal: to surprise our dad for his 60th birthday. For the past decade one of us had always been missing from our gatherings. The surprise, awkwardly captured on an iPhone, was as wonderful as could be imagined. There is a video of David and our dad encouraging Valerie to a wild high-five-off; photos of David in a sparkling cowboy hat, holding a mug of whiskey, gleefully teasing my mom about her liberal politics; and the recollection of a serious conversation between David and me about his plans for the future. Two days later, David was ambushed and shot in the line of duty as a police officer.
On March 1st, a deranged young man set a trap in a local Euless, Texas, park. Ignoring the park visitors and near-by school, he assumed a position in a hidden area, carefully laid out various loaded weapons and fired off a few rounds. Those shots gained the attention of community members who called 911. “Shots fired” is considered a routine call in this area of Texas, usually easily explained by fireworks or the testing of a legal gun. David was not assigned the call – he was a “rover” that shift so he could go wherever needed. Knowing my brother, he heard that his good friends were answering the call and decided to back them up. David was the first on scene, noticed movement by a drainage pipe behind a bush and directed the person to show his hands. David was shot in the head. Chaos followed. The valor on the part of other officers prevented an even more devastating tragedy. However, ultimately the details are immaterial. My brother died.
David did not die because he made a bad decision or took an unnecessary risk. He did not die because he didn’t have enough training or adequate equipment. He died because he wore a uniform.
My brother’s path to becoming a police officer was not an obvious one. Born into a liberal, academic family, David attended a private liberal arts school in Brooklyn Heights (where he was a puppeteer, poet and Chinese language student), and later New York University. He was well-traveled and had been presented with a wealth of experiences and opportunities. His decision to become a police officer stemmed from his experience during 9/11 when he was fifteen. In the midst of the tragedy unfolding in New York City, my brother focused on the people who were working to make things better: the firefighters, the police, the EMTs, the community members lining the streets with water and snacks. The experience was so powerful that he wrote a multitude of poems contemplating the sacrifices required of those brave souls who make others’ safety their calling. Years later, against all expectations and to the great confusion of those closest to him, who had expected him to grow out of these aspirations, David joined the NYPD after college. He became a police officer with the idealistic vision to help make New York City a better place.
As bits and pieces of his biography have made their way into articles and news clips these past weeks, many have been tempted to mourn his loss as an “exceptional officer” in an otherwise problematic institution. This is a mistake.
There are countless reasons why my brother should be alive today, chief among them to give lessons to us all about how to care for one another. Yet, in that regard my brother is not an exception. There are many caring police officers who do good in an incredibly challenging profession. Unfortunately, we tend not to honor these officers. Rather, what makes the news out of the millions of positive interactions officers have with people daily are the very small number of these interactions that devolve into an abuse of power. Most officers want to and do do their jobs well. They want to keep our streets safe. They want to help those who need help. They want to solve problems in their communities. However, instead of becoming teachers or social workers or psychologists, they chose to make a difference as a first responder, navigating the acute emergencies and difficulties that crop up in each of our lives.
In the aftermath of David’s death, we’ve heard a lot of stories about him from the officers who worked most closely with him. One of his colleagues from the 9th Precinct in NYC told me about how the two of them came across a severely emotionally-disturbed woman. She was rocking and screaming in the middle of a NYC street. His friend, an ex-marine with more years on the job than David, said he would have placed the woman in cuffs, made sure she couldn’t harm anyone, and then talked to her. My brother took a different approach. He started chatting with her, trying to calm her without having to take such measures. The result was that she slapped him straight across the face. My brother, knowing that she wasn’t a true threat first turned to his fellow officer and then back to her and said: “Did she just slap me? You just slapped me! You can’t do that.” The story goes on until the woman is voluntarily strapped into the ambulance and sheepishly looks at my brother and says: “I’m sorry.”
This is what made my brother remarkable. He could create a connection to any other person. Even someone out of touch with reality could recognize his humanity. He conveyed his care and respect for people in many ways, but what the world seems to remember most fondly is his characteristic sense of humor. He could lighten any situation with a self-effacing joke, a bit of quick wit, or the adoption of an absurd German accent. He could bridge worlds. At a gathering after the memorial service in NYC, one officer made a futile attempt to understand this tragedy. He couldn’t. Confused, he could only say: “He loved everyone and everyone loved him: black or white, young or old, rich or poor. He could reach everyone.” My brother’s gift was his ease at bridging the gaps between people. He just happened to be wearing a uniform while doing this job.
We need dedicated first responders in order to help and protect our communities. If we are to promote healing between law enforcement and the communities they serve, we cannot allow ourselves to be guided by negative assumptions about what it means to wear a uniform, just as we cannot allow ourselves to be guided by assumptions about what it means to come from a certain zip code or have a certain skin color. The willingness to heal has to come from each one of us.
We are only presented with the images and stories that represent the polarizing extremes: a cop being killed; a cop behaving badly. But, life happens mostly in between and that is where the acts of kindness are, unknown to most of us.
[Photo Credit: “The Human U.S. Shield” by 30,000 officers and men by Arthur Mole: This is a picture taken in 1918, which depicts 30,000 officers and men arranged into giant human US Shield. The photographer’s goal was to create a series of images that would help Americans feel good about themselves and boost patriotism.]