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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

2 slain officers aimed to mend trust in police

New York City police officers gather for a vigil after two fellow officers were shot Friday responding to a domestic violence incident in Harlem, Jan. 22, 2022.

By Ali Watkins and Ashley Southall

As a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2018, the same year he joined the New York Police Department, Officer Wilbert Mora studied the effects of stop-and-frisk tactics and less confrontational strategies like community policing on neighborhoods like East Harlem, where he lived.

His partner, Jason Rivera, had experienced aggressive policing firsthand: As a young man growing up in the Inwood area of Manhattan, he and his brother had been stopped without cause. He decided to join the force in an effort to improve the relationship between the department and communities like his.

On Friday, as the two officers responded to a domestic disturbance call in Harlem, a gunman opened fire inside a cramped hallway, killing Rivera and gravely wounding Mora. On Tuesday, the police announced that Mora had also died of his injuries.

The two young officers — Mora was 27, Rivera was 22 — were emblematic of a changing police force that has struggled to repair its relationships with the city’s Black and Hispanic communities. Both Latino in a department that was once overwhelmingly white, the officers were cognizant of problems with policing and eager to play a role in confronting them.

Today, more than 30% of the Police Department’s nearly 35,000 uniformed officers are Latino. The ranks of Latino officers have grown in recent years alongside Asian officers, while the share of Black officers has stagnated.

Rivera and Mora were part of a growing contingency of Dominican officers. On Tuesday, at a memorial outside Mora’s home in East Harlem, a diverse group from the 32nd Precinct, where Rivera and Mora were assigned, stood reading messages left by well-wishers and wiping away tears.

In an email to officers announcing Mora’s death on Tuesday, Commissioner Keechant Sewell said the department’s grief is “incalculable.”

Mora and Rivera, she wrote, “were dedicated, courageous and compassionate officers, loved by many.”

“The pain their families feel is immeasurable,” she said.

Mora graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, where he showed a deep interest in how the police should operate in New York City’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Professor Irina Zakirova, who taught his capstone seminar, said in an emailed statement that he was “a curious and passionate” student who was excited about joining the Police Department and made class discussions richer with his input.

“He even wrote his final research paper examining the effectiveness of proactive and reactive policing in reducing crime, discussing the effects of stop and frisk, and community policing in New York City,” she said. “I recall discussing his paper with him, and I found him to be very knowledgeable about the history of policing and police reforms in New York City.”

Mora and Rivera grew up during the height of stop and frisk, and were teenagers when a landmark federal ruling in 2013 declared the tactics violated the civil rights of mostly young Black and Hispanic men in the city, who were stopped and searched millions of times for weapons and drugs by officers with no legal justification. Since then, the number of stops has plummeted, and the city has developed new protocols under the guidance of a federal monitor.

In announcing Mora’s death on Tuesday, the police described his family’s decision to donate his organs for transplant as a final act of service.

Leonard Achan, president of LiveOnNY, the designated organ procurement agency for the New York metro area, said Mora’s family members “are huge supporters of organ donation, they wanted to make sure that their son’s legacy, brother’s legacy as well, would be that he saved lives in his death as well as in his life.”

On Twitter, Mayor Eric Adams mourned Mora.

“He served his city, protected his community and gave his life for our safety,” Adams wrote.

At Mora’s apartment complex on Tuesday, two tables set up on each side of the front entrance carried bouquets of white flowers and more than nine dozen blue candles, many of them lit by other officers stationed outside.

For about 15 minutes that afternoon, the group of officers from the 32nd Precinct stood in front of the lit candles reading the notes that were left for Mora. They eventually came together in a group embrace, placing their arms over one another in a circle, and held each other as they walked away.

The shooting Friday was the first time two city police officers had been killed in the line of duty since 2014, when Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were ambushed and shot at point-blank range while they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn.

“True heroes never die,” said Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union. “Our brother Police Officer Wilbert Mora has left us, but he will live on in the heart of every New York City police officer from this day forward.”

Mora, while a student at John Jay, had interests beyond policing. He studied music and sang bass in a choir, said Gregory Sheppard, who was one of Mora’s professors. He said Mora was soft-spoken, thoughtful and reflective, and had impressed his teacher with his devotion to mastering the material.

He said Mora’s death had taken an emotional toll on his former students who had also become police officers.

“It has had a really profound effect on all of them,” he said. “There’s a lot of sadness, frustration and anger.”

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