When Tragedy Strikes

February 3, 2022

I have been thinking about writing this article for over ten years. It was not procrastination that kept me from sitting down and typing out my thoughts on this topic. It was that anytime we in law enforcement discuss the true tragedies of our job, it is so painful that some will be offended or block it out completely to avoid the anguish. I understand all of that only too well, but events over the past few days have pushed me to write what I believe many of us need to hear to protect each other and our families in the days ahead of us. This tragedy is the “officer down.”

New York City Police Department officers were dispatched to a “domestic” call in a Harlem apartment building. They were directed to a room where the person causing the problem was. Multiple officers were on scene and as two officers approached the room they were immediately met with gunfire striking both of the officers. A third officer reportedly returns fire and critically wounded the suspect.

Within minutes of this shooting both local and national news outlets were breaking into programming and reporting that “Two NYPD Officers had been shot and killed in Harlem.” They have no other details, but they report with confidence that two officers are dead. The bell has now been rung and every family member, friend, and coworker of officers assigned to that part of the city are suddenly thrown into the sickest feeling they have ever experienced. Is it my husband? Is it my wife? Is it my son? Is it my daughter? Is it my best friend? What precinct? What are their names?

A wave of text messages, social media posts, and “news” reports flood our smart phones. The tension for those loved ones grows to levels beyond what most have ever experienced. The news media continues to “update” with the same story over and over. In many cases, not all, the news reporters are getting the information from people within the police department. In most cases the people providing the information are not even at the scene but are passing along something they heard on the police frequency or an unverified rumor they received via a text or phone call.

If you look at this example and hundreds of others like it there are only a handful of people that know exactly what happened at that scene and all of them are busy doing their jobs and don’t have time to tell anyone outside of that small core group what has taken place. That means the rest of us need to do our jobs, wait patiently for accurate and verified information, stay off our phones, and certainly don’t share anything with the media. The only exception to that is to send a quick text to a loved one saying, “I am ok.”

In the hours after this incident I observed, as many of you did, numerous social media posts with TWO NYPD badges with black mourning bands across them. It took hours before the media broadcasted that in fact only one officer was killed and a second officer was in critical condition. The media also initially reported that the suspect was 16 years of age and was killed in the exchange of gunfire. In fact, the suspect was 47 years old and still alive. Almost ALL of the initial information about this incident was 100% FALSE in the opening hours. We all recognize this to be the norm with the news media. Meanwhile those loved ones at home are still going through a very difficult time and some of that is caused by all of us in law enforcement. Please understand that I am not being critical of the officers or department surrounding this incident. This occurrence just pushed me to finally sit down and type. Law enforcement officers across the country working for departments big and small are all guilty of some of these things and that includes me. We must resist the need to tell someone what has happened when tragedy strikes and just stay off our phones.

If you have not watched the eulogy for Police Officer Jason Rivera by his wife Dominique, I suggest you do so. It was an emotional and beautiful tribute to a fallen hero. In the eulogy she revealed that she first learned about the shooting in Harlem from “Citizen App.” Although the headline had no details, she talked about how that made her feel. She attempted to contact Jason with no response. All she wanted was an “I’m ok” response which never came.

After a courageous fight, the second officer from this incident, Police Officer Wilbert Mora, died four days after the shooting.

While working as a Tactical Flight Officer and then a pilot at LAPD Air Support, I was called upon numerous times to fly command staff and or family members from a pickup point to a hospital after an officer down situation. Everyone who has worked at Air Support eventually handles this type of assignment. I vividly remember at least ten of these flights, but the final one before my retirement really stands out and is directly relevant to this article.

My partner and I were told that a horrific traffic collision had occurred and that one Hollywood Division officer was deceased at the scene and the second was cut out of the patrol car and transported to a nearby hospital in grave condition. We were told to be ready to pick up family of the hospitalized officer as soon as the details of the pickup point were determined by Hollywood Division. As we waited for those details we both went to our phones and checked on friends that worked Hollywood patrol. For almost 30 minutes we received information about this incident from patrol officers we knew. Several of those officers, one of whom said he was actually at the hospital, told us that the second officer was now dead. Our hearts sank.

We received our mission information and took off to pick up the parents of the hospitalized officer we now believed had died. We would fly them to the hospital rooftop helipad where they would be met by Hollywood Division officers. I remember my partner asking me how we would handle this flight as he had never done this type of mission before. I told him “turn off all of the police radios and when they ask us what we know we tell them we do not know anything. Our job is to fly them safely to the hospital and that’s it.” Thankfully, that is exactly what we did.

As we departed the hospital we were directed to land at a sheriff’s helipad to pick up the chief and the mayor and fly them to a neighboring city to meet the family of the other officer. I will never forget the chief getting into our aircraft and putting on his headset. I said, “What a terrible day Chief. We heard we lost the second officer.” The chief replied sternly “What are you talking about? I just left her bedside where she was sitting up and talking. She is going to be fine.” The chief was clearly irritated as he should have been. The rumor mill had reached this air crew with information that was completely false. We felt terrible for getting sucked into that frenzy of rumors and bad information. Imagine if we had said something to that surviving officer’s parents. Those are the people we need to think about after any critical incident not our own needs to know more. We both learned a valuable lesson that day. NEVER trust sensitive information unless you see it first-hand.

In today’s world of technology at our fingertips and a news media that feels the need to be first with the news rather than accurate, all of us need to think about what we can do to avoid getting caught in this information trap. I think the easiest way to remind ourselves about what to do and not do after these tragedies is to simply think about our own family. Would you want your family to learn of your death from a social media post or a text message? Every law enforcement agency has people who are responsible for interacting with the news media. They should be the only ones that provide any information and do that at the proper time. Every department also has a procedure to notify the family of an officer killed in the line of duty. We need to follow these policies and procedures carefully during these tragedies.

We are all human beings. We all have flaws. Law enforcement officers in general have a strong “need to know” attitude which is a good trait most of the time. Sometimes we need to show discipline and fight the urge to learn more and then disseminate that information. The “officer down” scenario is the time to apply that discipline.

What are the priorities after an officer down? Number one is obvious; do whatever is humanly possible to preserve the life of the officer. If that is impossible or you have done what you can and have turned over those duties to medical personnel, then number two is the capture or containment of the suspect who did it. No matter your position within your department that is the time to perform your specific duties to the best of your abilities. You must be physically prepared, mentally prepared, and tactically prepared for a critical incident every minute of your shift. Don’t concern yourself with other people’s jobs, just do yours. If you follow those two simple steps even the most tragic and chaotic situations will work themselves out. I am not saying it is easy, but I know that it is possible.

In the aftermath of a critical situation the rules are even easier. Stay off your phone except to tell a loved one that you are OK. Do not speculate about anything and do not pass unverified information on to others. Unless it is within your duties, do not speak with the news media. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in these situations. The media is a very low priority when it comes to an officer down.

Self-critiquing and debriefing are the very best training tools we have. It starts with looking in the mirror and realizing that we all make mistakes. Many mistakes have been made over the years in notifying loved ones of a law enforcement officers on-duty death. We need to learn from those mistakes and make our priority the families of our fallen brothers and sisters. They deserve our very best during the worst time of their lives, when tragedy strikes.

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