Shots heard round the country

It was about 20 years ago to the day that I sat in a New York City Police Department patrol car with Ralph Pascullo, then a lieutenant who patrolled housing projects in Manhattan.

Behind the patrol car, from about two miles downtown, red and green floodlights washed the Empire State Building with Christmas. We had stopped to pick up some pizza. I was working on a book, “The New Untouchables: How America Sanctions Police Violence,” which was published in 2004.

As we sat in the car, Ralph talked about his little boy, about how he gotten him a Thomas the Tank Engine toy for Christmas among other things, and about how much he loved his family.

We were interrupted by the crack of gunfire. First one shot, then others, and Ralph was out of the car with me trailing behind him. He was a cop doing what cops do so often, running toward the danger instead of away from it.

Calling for backup on his radio, Ralph barged into the apartment building from which he believed the shots had come and charged up six flights of stairs to the roof. Alone, with his service pistol pointed in front of him, he exited onto the roof. Whoever had fired the gun was gone; the spent shells remained. Ralph turned the matter over to a patrol unit, and we picked up our pizza.

For him it was another day at the office. For me it was a revelation. The shots were so loud and so close; close enough that if the car we were in was a target it would have been struck if the guy who fired was any sort of a decent shot.

My book was based around a central theory, that officers who abuse their authority not only endanger the criminal justice system but also other officers, who are guilty of nothing more than doing their jobs, of following the call of St. Michael by putting themselves before others. Ralph Pascullo has always been an example for me of a hero.

On Saturday I learned about the assassinations of two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, as they sat in a patrol car much like we had, right before Christmas, were killed by a miscreant named Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

Brinsley committed his senseless crime in full daylight, on an otherwise non-eventful Saturday afternoon. He later shot himself in a subway station as the cops neared. According to the most credible reports out there, Brinsley had a history of mental problems and a long record of arrests, mostly in Georgia. Prior to heading for New York from Baltimore, he had shot and wounded a girlfriend and made clear his intentions there in Instagram posts, which included the message, “I’m putting wings on pigs today.”

This has been a difficult year for relations between the police and the public they are sworn to protect and serve. In New York, some people are politicizing the shooting in the wake of what they perceive as far too lenient handling of demonstrators, who have protested the tragic killings of unarmed black men and youth by police in many cities.

This murderous act is no more related to any perceived failure of the public to “back up” officers than the hate killing of a gay person is related to Jesus Christ or His teachings. It was the act of a madman using current events as an excuse to give meaning to his own eventual suicide.

It is a reminder of how fragile those who protect us truly are and of how grateful we should be to the vast majority of police officers, who risk their lives every single day.

The shots fired in Brooklyn Saturday were heard around the nation. They affect the morale of men and women in uniform everywhere, including here, where unsung acts of heroism are performed every day by cops in Houma, Thibodaux, and throughout the parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche.

Few of us have to be consciously aware when we get dressed for work that something might happen which could keep us from coming home. Police officers, like firefighters and soldiers, do have to think about this.

So right now, while feelings are raw, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give them a little thank you, even after they hand us a ticket, for keeping everyone safe.