The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One city, two police officers and an entire nation in pain

Thousands gather at St. Patrick's Cathedral for the funeral of New York police officer Jason Rivera on Jan. 28. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Every now and then, an individual or occasion comes along to remind us of the many reasons to love this country. Jason Rivera was one of those individuals, and his funeral Friday was one of those occasions.

Rivera, of course, was one of the New York City police officers fatally shot on Jan. 21 while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Rivera, just 22, died that same day; his partner, Wilbert Mora, 27, died four days later after five people received his donated organs.

Although dozens of stories have been aired and written since the shooting, Friday’s service provided a more complete understanding of Rivera and his legacy. At the same time, we were offered a lesson in what has always been our nation’s strongest suit — the essential goodness that undergirds our aspirations and the willingness of so many to offer their lives in service to others.

We learned from his older brother Jeffrey that Jason had wanted to be a cop his whole life. Growing up, he would never miss a police show on TV and would lie on the couch wearing headphones, tuned to the police radio frequency. “He was afraid of dogs," Jeffrey recalled, "but he wasn’t afraid to die.”

Follow Kathleen Parker's opinionsFollow

We heard from Police Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell that Rivera recently sold his car and had begun taking the bus to work “so he could save every penny to make a better home.” Turning toward Cardinal Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Sewell said, “I’m a work in process, Cardinal. But if he [Rivera] can change the world, then we can change the world with him and for him.”

This was the essential message of each speaker. Like countless Americans whose names we’ll never know, Rivera loved his family, worked hard and strove to improve the world around him. “Salt of the earth” is what we used to call such people. Specifically, Rivera wanted to help end the chaos and spiking gun violence in his city — with homicides at their highest level in a decade.

Not that further evidence is needed, but a text exchange the morning of the funeral with my Manhattan niece was certainly on point. I was expressing concern about the coming weekend’s winter-weather “bomb cyclone,” to which she responded: “More concerned with being stabbed in nyc.”

New York Mayor Eric Adams, who spent 22 years as a police officer, described the funeral as a “biblical moment” for the city. It certainly felt that way from my perch in South Carolina, and doubtless everywhere else that people watched and listened. There was even a hint of Old Testament when Rivera’s bereft bride segued from the heart-wrenching story of their argument the last time she saw her husband to a starkly dispassionate indictment of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s new go-easy-on-criminals policy.

If I heard correctly, she issued a call to arms.

Directing her words to her dead husband, she said, “I want you to live through me. This system continues to fail us. We are not safe anymore, not even the members of the service. I know you were tired of these laws, especially the ones from the new DA. I hope he’s watching you speak through me now. I’m sure all of our blue family is tired, too. But I promise, we promise, that your death won’t be in vain. We’ll take the watch from here.”

A deafening standing ovation carried her back to her seat.

At Mora’s service slated for next week, we will hear similar tributes. But several things stood out to me during this one. Foremost, the great humanity expressed was balm at a time when cops are under fire and the absurd “defund the police” movement continues to have supporters. While understanding the origins of that movement — the pivotal murder of George Floyd by a police officer most infamously among them — shifting funds away from law enforcement to achieve other worthy social goals comes at a great cost.

Next, immigrants are our greatest resource. People such as Officers Rivera and Mora, who willingly sacrifice for the privilege of opportunity, were both first-generation sons of immigrants. We need more, not fewer, like them.

Finally, the bond of our men and women in blue is the same we have shared and rallied to support in bad times (and sometimes good). The risk we take in shredding that bond through our politics, and in our dehumanizing incivility toward one another, might be greater than our Republic can bear.

Without the rule of law — and respect for those commissioned to enforce it — democracy doesn’t stand a chance. Rivera and Mora were too young to perish, but their brave example is their legacy. They did not die in vain.