In The Shadow of Murdered Cops
Det. Rafael Ramos spent a lifetime trying to become a police officer, entering the academy at age 38. Then, just two years into the job, he was cut down.
On Saturday, the bagpipes will keen and twin buglers will play taps and an honor guard will shoulder the flag covered coffin of NYPD Det. Rafael Ramos, whose boyhood nickname, Pote, was inspired by his uncommon goodness while growing up in Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhood.
“Tu eres como chuleria en pote,” goes the Puerto Rican expression that gave rise to his moniker. “You are like goodness in a jar.”
That goodness steered him clear of the Sex Boys, the Crazy Homicides, the Sons of Nuns, and the other gangs of East New York. And it led him in his teenage years to declare his ambition to become a cop.
“I want to make a difference,” he told his friend Israel Marrero. “I’m tired of the stuff that’s going on in our neighborhood.”
The NYPD remained his ultimate goal as he went to work as a carrier for Airborne Express/DHL and then as a school safety officer. He happened to be assigned to the Police Officer Rocco Laurie Intermediate School on Staten Island, where every workday brought a reminder of the dangers a cop faces.
By the front desk where Marrero would sit was a huge reproduction of NYPD shield 11019, the one worn by Officer Rocco Laurie when he and his partner, Gregory Foster, were assassinated by black militants on the Lower East Side in 1972.
The daily message of that outsized shield to Ramos was that just wearing the NYPD inform can make you a target.
“He would be sitting and looking at it every day,” the school’s principal, Peter Mecallari, remembers.
But Ramos seemed only more determined to become a police officer. And his performance in the school was a daily message to everyone; the same combination of unshakable goodness and true street wisdom that made him the perfect school safety officer and would also make him the perfect cop.
“He had a way about him,” Mecallari says. “The kids adored him… He never screamed at them. He handled every situation calmly.”
Ramos would help set the tone of the day when he greeted the arriving students outside the school. And he could keep order in the halls just by ambling through them.
“He’d walk through the halls and he’d expect the same kind of respect he’s given to them,” Mecallari says. “He was very quiet, not loud, not pushy.”
When there were disputes between students, Mecallari would leave one party with Ramos while he went to investigate.
“The kids didn’t mind staying with him at all,” Mecallari says. “He’d talk to them, calm them down if they were upset.”
The students would tell Ramos what they would not tell Mecallari or the teachers.
“Usually, he would get things out of them we weren’t able to,” Mecallari says.
Ramos was a fervent Mets fan and he would often talk to the students about sports. He would talk to Mecallari and the staff about what was of paramount importance to him, his two sons.
“Always about his family, always about his boys,” Mecallari says. “He was every proud of them. He wanted the best in life for them.”
Ramos still lived in Brooklyn, and he would drop his older son at the private Staten Island Academy on the way to work and that daily reminder by the front desk. He remained as hopeful as ever that he would himself join the NYPD, whatever the danger.
“He always wanted to be one. He wanted to give back to the community,” Mecallari says. “We did not argue with him, ‘you are giving back to the community.’”
Ramos just missed being called for one police academy class. A subsequent one was cancelled. But the long awaited big day finally came in 2012.
“He was ecstatic,” Mecallari recalls.
The school’s big loss was the city’s big again. Ramos was 38—nearly two decades older than the average recruit. But he made it through the academy and he was soon living his dream. His most recent assignment was the 84th Precinct, at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge.
After the grand jury in Staten Island failed to indict anyone in the death of Eric Garner], protesters crossed the bridge into the 84th Precinct again and again, chanting about racist, killer cops.
Ramos just kept being a perfect cop. He hoped also to be a chaplain through his local church, and he was nearing the end of his formal training. The NYPD and his duties required him to miss the graduation on December 20.
His regular partner was late that day, and Police Officer Wenjian Liu volunteered to fill in. They were assigned that day to work in the 79th Precinct, in the vicinity of a Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project where there had been a spike in violence, despite the NYPD’s success in transforming New York into the safest big city in America.
In the mid-afternoon, Ramos and Liu were parked on Tomkins Avenue on a meal break. Liu was nearing the 20th anniversary of his arrival in America, having landed from China on Christmas Eve, 1994, at the age of 12. He had studied accounting in college, but he had become a cop for the same reason as Ramos. Liu was also well aware of the risks that came with the shield.
“I know that being a cop is dangerous but I must do it,” a friend remembered him saying, as reported in The New York Times. “If I don’t do it and you don’t do it, then who is going to do it?”
Liu had just gotten married two months before and hoped to start a family right away. Ramos had seen his older son continue on to Bowdoin College. His younger son was in a private school in Brooklyn.
Shortly before 3 p.m., a deranged man stepped up to the car and fatally shot both officers, the seventh time NYPD partners had been murdered. Ramos and Liu now joined Laurie and Foster in the city’s history.
Among the mourners will be those who knew Ramos in his childhood days on Essex Street and during his time sitting before that outsized shield as a school safety officer and during those two brief, indelible years as the cop he always wanted to be.
All would attest to the manifest goodness that inspired the perfect nickname for the boy who would become a perfect cop.