You walk into the precinct, and there they are: The faces and names of officers killed in the line of duty. Some of them are from your precinct, some of them are from another. Some of them were killed over a century ago, others you knew personally. Their rookie photos look out at you; the carefully posed portraits of men who, like you, were immensely proud of their badge on the day that they earned it. Would they still have accepted it so gladly if they’d known ahead of time that it would cost them their lives? Would you? You hope so.
The first men on the wall died even before modern policing was born. The faces and names are what you’d expect: European, white, male. Their ranks and titles are now unfamiliar; people called them “roundsmen” and “constables”. These men walked the streets with nothing: no car, no radio, no bulletproof vest. They died preventable deaths in circumstances that are hard to imagine. Patrolman Corneilus Regan died of meningitis contracted while pulling a man from an icy river. In 1839, Captain John Bird of the Texas Rangers was shot through the heart with an arrow during a battle with Comanche Indians. In 1877, Philadelphia Police Officers Jacob Boyer and Henry Lucas were riding a streetcar back to the station house when it was hit by a train.
Looking down, you see that over the intervening centuries the men on the wall changed with the nation. Today, death in the line of duty is diverse: Dallas Police Officer Rogelio Satander, Jr. was shot to death in 2018 as he tried to arrest a shoplifter. In 2014, NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were ambushed in their patrol car. In 2015, Philadelphia Police Sergeant Robert F. Wilson III died in a shootout with armed robbers at a Gamestop. Sergeant Wilson’s memory lives on in a truly impressive mural in West Philadelphia, where he smiles as he looks out at his community.
And of course, the men on the wall aren’t just men anymore. On January 9th, 2017, Orlando Police Lieutenant Debra Clayton was gunned down in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart by a man wanted for murder. In June of this year, Seattle Police Officer Alexandra Harris was off-duty when she stopped to help a stranded motorist and was struck by a passing car. And twenty years ago today, NYPD Officer Moira Reddy-Smith was last seen helping evacuees escape from the South Tower up until it collapsed. The twisted remnant of her shield sits in the 9/11 Museum.
Sometimes, it seems like what’s killing cops is also killing the country. In the racial strife and rioting of the 1960s, the Black Panther Party ambushed and killed numerous police officers. In the 1980s, police deaths from gunfire set modern records. Twenty years ago, 71 cops were killed as they responded to the September 11th attacks, and in the subsequent decades, dozens more died from 9-11 related illnesses. And of course today, COVID-19 is by far and away the number one killer of police officers in the United States.
Many of the men on the wall, you don’t have to ask what they died for. On 9/11, NYPD Officer John Perry was at One Police Plaza putting in his retirement papers when the towers were hit. Officer Perry had a law degree and spoke four languages. He could have finished that paperwork and walked away into any other career. Instead, he pinned his badge back on, ran into the North Tower, and was never seen again. There’s no question that he died making a difference.
But for others, it’s less obvious. In 1984, Seattle Police Officer Nick Davis was attacked by a suspect who he tried to arrest for refusing to pay a $3.55 bill at IHOP. The man wrestled Officer Davis’ gun away and executed him in the street. The murderer was sent to a mental hospital and later released. I have to admit that the pointlessness of it bothers me. What kind of person would kill a cop over $3.55? Why did a cop have to die trying to arrest someone over a dine and dash? Was it really worth it?
I have to believe that it was. Because the kind of man who’s willing to kill a cop over $3.55 is the kind of man who needs to be stopped. Someone needed to step up and stop him, just like someone needed to guide people out of the North Tower, someone needed to arrest that murderer at Walmart, and someone needed to help the motorist stranded on the side of the freeway. The men on the wall are the men who stepped up, even though they knew it could cost them everything.
For some people, I guess, the veneration of dead cops is just another problem with policing — another reason to write preachy editorials and hold interminable seminars. They think the reason cops remember the men on the wall is because cops are too afraid of death; because cops think it’s “us versus them.” Everyone is afraid of dying, and I maintain that you’re an idiot or a liar if you claim that you aren’t. But while I can’t speak for other cops, I know that for me remembering the men on the wall was never about fear.
Cops are cynical. But in secret, I think most police are also believers, because you can’t really do the job without believing in something. I carried around a copy of the Constitution in my uniform pocket, and I still fly the American flag at home. Why did I do that? The corniest reason: I believed in it. Even when I was cursing some court decision that made my job harder, I still believed in the Constitution and the rule of law and the greatness of this country and the people who live here. Other people I worked with were carried by other faiths — faith in God was a big one — but I think most everyone believed in something.
In my most cynical moments, I would feel that faith slipping. I’d look at the political bullshit and the chaos and the danger and the way people were acting, and wonder if it’s all worth it. But I’d see the men and women on the wall and you remember that they thought it was worth it. They rode horses after bandits, broke up speakeasies, battled mobsters with Tommy guns, chased crooks down dark alleys, patrolled through pandemics, and climbed the steps of a burning World Trade Center because they thought it was worth it. Across 245 years of American history, over 25,000 of them gave their lives because they thought it was worth it.
So who am I to disagree?
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