Det. Steven McDonald called out into the predawn stillness from the motorized wheelchair where he has been consigned for the quarter century since a teenage gunman shot him in the throat.
A father’s tenderness wafted on breath generated by the ventilator the 54-year-old needs to stay alive. He had, as always, awakened to make double sure his son was up in time for work.
“Dad, I’m getting ready!” Conor McDonald replied, having, as always, set his alarm.
Conor is 24, born six months after his father was shot and left paralyzed from the neck down. His entire life, he has needed only to look at the one he calls Dad to be intimately reminded of the danger a cop faces. And the day-to-day existence of a quadriplegic is far crueler than most people imagine.
Conor now put on the new Coldplay album to get himself going, finished dressing, and quickly checked the latest sports and news on his computer. The news of late had carried an unsettling spate of reports of police misconduct.
Twice in a week, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly had found himself at press conference announcing not another record drop in crime or another thwarted terrorist plot, but the arrest of multiple officers. The more benign case involved 16 cops in the Bronx charged with fixing traffic tickets as a courtesy to relatives and friends of other cops, an age-old practice that had already been ended by a new computer system. A far more serious case involved eight former and present cops charged with smuggling guns and bootleg cigarettes.
Another recent case involved a cop who was alleged to have falsely arrested a young black man, recorded afterward saying that he had “fried another n----r.” There was also a narcotics detective who had been convicted of planting drugs on a suspect and the judge in the case had spoken of a pervasive “cowboy culture” in the unit. And then there was the deputy inspector who was captured on YouTube pepper-spraying young Occupy Wall Street protesters.
As pained as Kelly looked at the press conference, he did not despair, and neither should his department nor his city. He knows that if there is a handful of bad cops, there are tens of thousands of good ones. He need only think of Shield 15798, the one he wore as a young cop, the very one that Conor McDonald now had in his pocket as he headed out into the early-morning darkness. Conor was on his way to begin another tour as the fourth generation of his family to serve in the NYPD.
“Hey, Dad, I love you!” Police Officer Conor McDonald called out.
“Be safe,” Det. Steven McDonald said. “Think smart. Think tactics.”
The mother, Patti Ann McDonald, was also awake. She is the mayor of the Long Island town of Malverne, but she also remains pure mom. She had been three months pregnant with Conor when her husband was shot, and here she was, watching her son depart once again to risk the same.
“Call me when you get there,” she told him.
Conor climbed into the car he bought back when he was still at Boston College and many people figured he would go on to a big law firm or Wall Street. He was instead driving through the city to the Midtown South stationhouse in Manhattan, pursuing a destiny determined back in the summer of 1986, when a grievously wounded young cop and his beautiful pregnant wife touched the city’s heart.
“My life was changed before I was born,” Conor said.
The city’s history has few moments more remarkable than when Steven chose his son’s baptism as an occasion to release a letter forgiving the 15-year-old who shot him.
“I became a police officer to help the people of New York in any small way I could. My father and grandfather before me had the same dream,” the letter said in part. “When I first wore the badge of a police officer, I was so proud to, and hoped that I would be able to live up to its tradition of courage and compassion.”
The letter touched what was best in the city, and the result was an outpouring of love and support that continued year after year. The sight of his father in a wheelchair taught Conor not just the evil a cop can suffer but the good a cop can inspire not just what a cop can lose but what a cop and his family can receive. Conor felt less cheated than blessed and indebted.
“I felt there was a lot more expected of me because of what my family was given,” Conor said.
He was crystalline clear about the example set by his father.
“Character. Integrity. Honesty. Courage.”
Conor arrived at Midtown South and donned his uniform, a nameplate reading “McDonald,” and shield 15798 gleaming on his chest. He often was assigned to Times Square, where he and a partner had grabbed a suspect in a gunpoint rape. On this day he was dispatched to do crowd control at the filming of the new Batman movie downtown, close to the Occupy Wall Street protest.
Others assigned to the detail included a veteran detective, maybe 15 years older than Conor and with that many years on the job. The detective urged him not to be discouraged by all the negative stories about cops in the news.
“Don’t get down on the job,” the detective said. “It’s a good job. You know you work with good guys. They talk about their families. You know if you’re in a bad spot they have your back.”
Conor had already decided that he could have no better comrades, that only the tiniest minority of cops were less than they should be. He found the rest to be dedicated and ever ready to race into direst danger for the sake of complete strangers.
“The 99.9 percent,” Conor said.
He is keenly aware he is only a rookie, only beginning to learn what it is to be a cop.
“You don’t really understand the job until you’re on the job,” he said. “Liberal or conservative, you finally get on the street and you realize it’s a whole different world … You see what society doesn’t want to see.”
Idealism is something a cop has to work at.
“I want to serve and help people,” he said. “Some people don’t want to be helped.”
The tour ended without event and Conor returned to the stationhouse after sundown. He changed back into jeans and a red hoodie, looking as young as he is as he drove past night spots filled with other young people.
“Passing these bars on a Saturday night,” he said. “It’s tough for a 24-year-old.”
He could not even think of going out.
“I got to wake up again at 5 a.m.”
He drove on.
“You just keep telling yourself you’re doing a good thing … doing God’s work.”
He does not forget the risks.
“Putting your life on the line is not an easy vocation.”
A reminder of that awaited him at home.
“So, how’d it go today?” Steven asked.
“I saw Batman,” Conor replied.
Patti Ann had presided at several events as mayor, but had made a dinner of steak and potatoes and carrots. There was talk during dinner of his great grandfather, Det. James Conway, who was shot in the chest while capturing a trio of gunmen. One of the gunmen had placed a pistol to Conway’s head and pulled the trigger, but it misfired.
There was also talk of Conor’s encounter with the suspect in a gunpoint rape.
“My heart’s pounding,” Conor recalled.
“Conor’s not going to avoid trouble,” Steven noted. “You just have to trust that he was listening when they told him how to handle those situations.”
Steven trusts his son’s fellow cops.
“Extraordinary people,” Steven said. “He’s going to be with the right people to handle these very dangerous situations.”
He knows from his own experience and that even the best of training and back-up is no guarantee. He and his wife can do only what other families do when a cop is on the street.
“Like everybody else, you just have to block it out until you see them again,” Steven said.
He himself sometimes has doubts about the calling he and his son now share.
“You scratch your head and you wonder if it’s worth it,” he said. “But when you help somebody, when you help the city …”
Conor rose from the table and headed upstairs to catch some sleep. He had to be up again for another early tour.
“Dad,” he said. “Five o’clock.”