Wilton Sekzer, a retired sergeant in the New York Police Department, joined 25,000 other current and former cops last Saturday as they mourned Rafael Ramos, one of two patrolmen gunned down Dec. 20 in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
But as angry as he is at Mayor Bill de Blasio, a feeling he shares with much of the force, he wouldn’t have turned his back on the mayor as he delivered the eulogy, as thousands of other officers did.
Sekzer, one of the most prominent Jewish members of the NYPD community, says he stood in an outdoor area designated for representatives of the NYPD’s various fraternal groups, including the Shomrim Society. That placed him far from the scene, closer to Glendale’s Christ Tabernacle Church, where officers engaged in their spontaneous, but controversial, action.
Had he known about it, though, Sekzer wouldn’t have followed suit.
“To me, personally, it just seems like it wasn’t the best place to do it,” says Sekzer, who lost a 31-year-son 13 years ago as two planes slammed into the World Trade Center. “But I understand why they did it.”
Sekzer is one of two retired police officers who spoke to The Jewish Week in the past few days about the ambush of two NYPD cops, Ramos and Wenjian Liu, as well as the weeks of protests over alleged bias in the criminal-justice system. The protests followed the decision of grand juries in two areas, Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, not to indict officers involved in the questionable killings of two black citizens.
Leaders of the Shomrim Society couldn’t comment without permission from the NYPD’s public information office and pointed out that their group, now about 2,000 members strong, doesn’t take stands on political matters.
But retired officers are under no such restrictions, and both men interviewed by The Jewish Week agreed with the views of union leaders and others who see de Blasio as anti-police and have said he has “blood on his hands.” One of those leaders is Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who, days before the ambush in Bedford-Stuyvesant, urged his members to sign a petition requesting that the mayor not speak at their funeral in case they were killed.
Other leaders in the city, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, have criticized the extremes on both sides of the divide and called for calmer words.
Sekzer, though, echoed Lynch’s comments, reflecting his anger at de Blasio and those who’ve been protesting police actions.
“As much as people say this is an outrageous thing to do,” Sekzer said, referring to Lynch’s remark, “this SOB does have the blood of cops on his hands.” Like Lynch, Sekzer said he was furious when the mayor told the press about warning Dante, his biracial, teenage son, to be careful in any encounter with police officers.
“When I hear a statement like that, I have smoke coming from my ears,” Sekzer said. “It sounds like the kind of comments you’d hear from the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army” in the 1960s or ’70s.
Sekzer also supports the officers involved in the death of Eric Garner, the black resident of Staten Island who perished after cops placed him in what many describe as a chokehold.
“The bottom line is, the guy refuses to be arrested, which is against the law,” Sekzer said. “It doesn’t matter if the guy is right. It doesn’t matter if the cop is wrong.”
Like Sekzer, M. Waldman spoke of an “anti-police climate” in the city, but he places the blame not only on de Blasio, but on President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
“They created this” atmosphere, said Waldman, a retired detective who preferred that his first name not be used. “Who will speak up for police if not for the police themselves?”
Waldman’s comment about Obama is at odds with a recent article from PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking site, which cited repeated instances in the past few months in which the president praised law-enforcement officers and deplored any violence against them.
Meanwhile, unlike Waldman, Sekzer believes that both sides can do more to heal emotions.
“I think the public needs to have a better understanding of the sacrifices police make,” while officers “need to have a better understanding of how to deal with the community,” he said.
Sekzer would also back at least some reform of the NYPD, saying he believes officers need additional training — a comment that aligns him with at least one of the mayor’s views. Sounding like the sergeant he once was, Sekzer said the training is particularly needed for young cops: “Someone’s got to smack them in the head and say, ‘You’ve got to learn how to talk to people.”
Yet another perspective came from Miriam Nockenofsky, an Orthodox Jew who worked for the NYPD in the 1990s as a volunteer, who campaigned for de Blasio and who knows the mayor.
Nockenofsky is now as critical of the mayor as some of her former colleagues, but she believes the mayor isn’t anti-police. Instead, she said, “he’s like a deer in headlights,” trying to please members of the NYPD and protesters at the same time.
Regarding Lynch, Nockenofsky understands why he made his comments — “the cops are petrified,” she said — but believes his language was much too destructive.
“Does he want to take responsibility” for any of the consequences? asked Nockenofsky, who has a background in psychology and worked in the area of domestic violence. “Words are extremely powerful, and once you say something, you can’t take it back.”
Instead of lashing out publicly at the mayor, Nockenofsky said, Lynch should have told the mayor that they needed to have a meeting in private, “with no media and no cameras. Something has to be done” about the unrest and the anger at police.