A Thought: On Openness

I signed up to receive notifications when someone comments on my post “My Brother Was Killed Because He Wore A Uniform” on one of the major law enforcement Facebook pages. I can honestly say that most feedback has been supportive and honors my brother and other police officers. Some feedback is especially meaningful. Then, occasionally, something like this appears:

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I know this is a person who doesn’t actually care about these issues in a deep way. I doubt they even read my post. For whatever reasons, they have made up their mind that all cops are power-hungry and racist [yes, those words have been used in response to my article] and decided that, for those reasons, the lives of people in Blue don’t matter. I will spare you some of the worst comments I’ve seen, but I think you can imagine what they might be.

I don’t care who you are or what your background is. Life ALWAYS matters. It’s painful to know that people are so blinded by their narrow views and hate, that they simply dismiss this fundamental mandate. Life matters. My brother’s life mattered. Even this hateful person’s life matters.

But, ultimately, these are not the people one can expect to reach with a message of betterment. I truly believe that people with these hateful views are a very tiny minority of our society.

What is a lot more common, however, is that many other people have narrowed their worldview so significantly, that they are only grabbing bits and pieces of information to form their perspective on what the police means. They are only grasping at the stories and details that support their already established views. They are only talking to other people who believe the same things that they do. And, unfortunately, this happens on all sides of the discussion: the community can have detrimental ways of thinking about law enforcement, and law enforcement can have detrimental ways of thinking about the communities they serve.

This is where the change needs to happen.

We need to challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think we know to integrate information and events that, maybe, are contrary to our beliefs.

We need to challenge ourselves to see the nuances of controversial issues, and in fact, to seek out information that represents the other side of the discussion.

We need to challenge ourselves to engage meaningfully and respectfully with the people who believe the opposite of what we do.

Ultimately, we need to be open to changing our minds.

A Thought: To Our Heroes

This post is long overdue, but know that we have thought of you every single day. These words are dedicated to Dave’s friends and fellow officers who were there with him on March 1st.

You were there. You did everything in your power to save him. You were shot at. Yet, you moved forward in the face of grave danger without consideration of your own safety. You prevented the loss of more lives. You were with him in his last moments. 

Barely a moment to grieve,  you’re already back out there again. In the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, you’re once again patrolling the streets, helping strangers, responding to more “shots fired” calls.

You are heroes. My family knows this.

You are in our hearts, always.

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A Thought: On Doing Better

Yesterday, Dutch novelist and Huffington Post columnist Pia de Jong published her take on my recent blog post “My Brother Was Killed Because He Wore A Uniform.” Full disclosure, though Pia only knew Dave peripherally, she knows my parents through my dad’s work and has been touched by this tragedy for that reason. Pia’s piece marked the first time a more left-leaning outlet picked up my post (so please go comment & support the post!), and I well know this is because the author knows our family. At the same time, my piece has meanwhile been shared on various law enforcement Facebook pages (like Law Enforcement Today) and websites (like Police Daily), CBS DFW did an article on it, and the Star Telegram mentioned the post in a discussion of Dave’s killer.

Of course, the law enforcement community can easily relate to my post. It serves to humanize a man in a uniform at a time when media depictions of police officers are highly polarized. The LEO community cares because we all know that our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and best friends are so much more than the blue they wear. Our loved ones’ job is not what defines them. Every single person in the law enforcement community can imagine and understand the fear and pain of losing their loved one. I imagine that many of the LEO readers see my post and contemplate the words they would write in tribute to their man or woman in blue, or perhaps, think about what would be written about them.

The question I’m grappling with is how the average person can be brought to see the humanity in officers. Unfortunately, the uniform is a symbol for a larger system that many people feel is problematic or even oppressive. And, you know what, support of our police does not mean that we can’t at the same time also acknowledge problematic officers or policies that inflict hardship and pain in some communities. It is not a contradiction to do so. It means we’re able to see the gray areas. It means that we have nuance.

Yet, there is a distinct separation between a problematic system and the individual officers that are sworn to uphold laws and perform the duty of protecting and serving their communities. The police officer is responsible for dealing with situations that most of the time, by definition, involve conflict, suffering and confrontation. Unless we have interacted with a police officer personally, and in a positive way, it’s difficult to look beyond the uniform to see the man or woman who is doing an important job that requires patience, bravery, and split-second decision-making.

How can we get to a place where, instead of yelling at each other from opposite sides, we face each other with tolerance, understanding and a true desire to find common ground?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Email them to the ForHofer email address, and I will post some responses anonymously.

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Dave’s NYPD graduation, before he could fill his uniform.

Responses to “My Brother Was Killed Because He Wore A Uniform”

Through the almighty power of the internet (and low privacy restrictions on some accounts), I’ve been able to find some pretty amazing comments in regards to my recent article about Dave’s killing. Of course, it’s not all too surprising that there are many folks who support our officers whole-heartedly, but what I was more intrigued by was the responses who perhaps aren’t from typical supporters of our men and women in Blue. Check out this one (I redacted the names for privacy reasons).

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Or, what about this one?Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 3.09.14 PM.png

Please let me know if you find any more responses similar to these! I’d love to see them.

My Brother Was Killed Because He Wore A Uniform

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.

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[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.]