My Turn: To protect and serve: A police story

  • Levy

For the Monitor
Published: 7/15/2020 6:20:15 AM

Los Angeles native Jeremy Levy was 19 that day in 1992 when he drove to a Los Angeles junior high school where his mother taught to pick her up and make sure she got home safely. But as they stopped briefly at a Wilshire Boulevard intersection, the Levys were terrified by an approaching mob.

Protesters advanced up the street, smashing every storefront window and every parked car. Unlucky pedestrians were assaulted. Terrified, Jeremy gunned the car’s engine, whipped around a barricade, and took an alternate route home.

The violent scenes of anarchy were seared into Levy’s memory. It was May 4 and the rioters were enraged by the acquittal of L.A. police officers accused of brutality in a videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King. Sixty-three people died in the chaos while many hundreds more suffered severe injuries.

Levy knew that force was needed to counter the mob violence but he understood that it was excessive police force that sparked the conflagration in the first place. And so it was that he first recognized a dichotomy that’s challenged so many communities for so many years. How can those charged with maintaining order do so while still retaining the humanity and compassion essential to effective law enforcement?

To protect and serve?

Raised in L.A. County, Levy was imbued with a sense of duty to help those in need. Hence his trip on that May 4 to protect his mother. And the imagery of that awful day actually propelled him on a journey where he eventually became a policeman himself – one who’d later receive national recognition for his work.

Young Levy took a job at Macy’s in what he described as “loss prevention,” monitoring video screens to catch shoplifters. While protecting store property he learned that there was a spectrum of potential responses to thievery. Not every miscreant needed to “have the book thrown at them.” Levy felt that while some thieves were incorrigible others could be steered in better directions with firm but compassionate action. He discovered a rewarding balance whereby property was protected without permanently damaging every perpetrator.

Levy went on to earn an EMT license and then sought to become a City of Los Angeles park ranger/patrol officer in 1994. Despite some wonderful qualifications he was not hired. He tried again in 1995 and was again turned away, essentially due to race, as it was explained to him. Levy is white, and the focus was on minority hiring, in part in response to the King riots. The rejection was frustrating but it gave him useful insights. He tried again in 1996 and was finally selected.

While patrolling the trails of Griffith Park, Levy further developed his interpersonal skills in responding to all manner of public situations. He moved on to work in San Fernando Valley before leaving the Rangers to attend a Federal Law Enforcement Academy in Petaluma, Calif. This positioned him for a seasonal law enforcement opportunity as a federal ranger at Lake Mead, Nevada, near Las Vegas.

“It was a crazy job,” recalled Levy. “There were many accidents, deaths and drownings, but our presence there saved some people and that was incredibly rewarding.”

In 1999 Levy decided to go “all in” with law enforcement and was accepted at a Nevada police academy. Sixty cadets started with 40 completing the training – including Levy. He was now a cop with the famous Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. LVMPD featured around 2,500 officers tasked with the unique challenges of policing Sin City.

Levy worked downtown from 2001-07. The work was sometimes boring but often exciting. With experience came better judgment and the enhanced interpersonal skills so important to successful police officers. Inevitably there were stressful and dangerous situations and not all Levy’s colleagues could cope with it all. But Jeremy realized that he seemed to have “the right stuff.”

“There are few things more rewarding than saving lives,” explained Levy. “And we saved a lot of lives.”

As one of many examples, Levy described how he prevented a jumper from hurling himself off the top of a parking garage, eventually grabbing the man as he was about to leap to his death. The jumper later thanked Levy for intervening the way he did at a desperate time.

“Dealing with delirious or delusional people has too often resulted in officers deploying firearms when peaceful approaches may work,” observed Levy.

Levy’s compassionate instincts and laudatory record reflected the best of his Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). His efforts earned him recognition as 2005 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department CIT Officer of the Year and then 2006 National CIT Officer of the Year.

Then in 2007 he was rewarded for his unique talents when he was named as an LVMPD peer counselor, a job he’d hold until 2020, helping numerous officers suffering from PTSD with all the associated interpersonal pathologies. Levy explained that while Ph.D/therapists certainly are well educated they can’t necessarily relate to clients or patients in the same way as a peer who knows what its like on the streets.

“Job stress often leads to depression and addiction,” said Levy. “Some cops head down a road towards suicide. I want to think we helped many of them turn around and choose life over death.”

Levy also lauded officers’ families and pointed out that the stress of police work takes a heavy toll. The divorce rate for police officers is around 80%.

“Officers receive medals and recognition for heroic acts but medals should also go to their spouses who hang in there with them.”

Levy explained that both male and female officers run a higher risk of broken relationships – not only with spouses but also with children, friends and relatives.

“The suicide rate for police is twice the national average,” added Levy. “And rates of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse are also disproportionately high. Daily exposure to traumatic scenes is just not healthy.”

Levy feels that academies do well at teaching policing but wishes they could somehow also educate family members as to how to better live with police officers.

10/1

The expression “9/11” sadly resonates with most Americans over the age of 25. But Las Vegas cops also have “10/1.” Oct. 1, 2017, was the day that Stephen Paddock barricaded himself at the Mandalay Bay Resort and opened fire on a large crowd of music fans attending a festival below his suite on the 32nd floor. Fifty-eight people died immediately while 413 were wounded, with hundreds more injuries occurring during the subsequent panic. It was the worst mass shooting ever in the western hemisphere.

The casualties included police officers, and Levy was quickly en route to provide support at various hospitals.

“It was horrific,” recounted the veteran policeman. “The hospital lobbies were littered with countless seat belts, of all things, as they were used as tourniquets in so many vehicles that rushed victims to the hospitals.”

The tragedy’s aftermath reinforced Levy’s faith in the innate spirit that animates communities in response to tragedy and carnage.

“It seemed like everyone in Las Vegas pulled together, at least for a while,” said Levy. “Kindness and hugs abounded.”

The sobering reminder of human mortality unified the people of Las Vegas, regardless of race or status. Folks seemed to better appreciate the first responders who put their lives on the line to serve and protect.

“Most cops are very sensitive but they often mask that sensitivity to project the strength that people expect from them,” explained Levy. “Internalizing emotions can take a toll that sometimes leads to outbursts in certain circumstances. That’s what I dealt with in 12 years of peer counseling.”

Levy explained that many policemen struggle with a challenging “identity duality.”

“We want the bad guys to fear us and the good folks to love us. But the good and bad are not always so easy to differentiate. It takes a toll and many cops develop emotional armor and sometimes cynicism to get by. Some deal with things better than others. And yes, some cops get brutalized by the demands and do bad things. But it’s hard to see people define all police by the actions of the worst cops.”

Levy added that 2020 has been an especially challenging year for law enforcement.

“Most cops are caring human beings who want to be valued,” said Levy. “They struggle with being vilified after putting their lives on the line.”

Levy’s troubled by calls to defund or eliminate police and having witnessed so much – from the King riots in L.A. to 10/1 in Las Vegas – he cringes at the notion of the thin blue line being erased. He knows the danger that would bring to every community.

“Police brutality is a symptom, not a cause of societal problems,” Levy added. “We need to focus on root causes.”

Levy retired from LVMPD earlier this year and now lives with his wife, Jacqueline, and son, Jaxon, in Orange County, Calif.

“I needed to decompress a bit and recharge my batteries after being responsible for the emotional well-being of 2,500 cops,” he said.

Still, Levy remains an advocate for his brothers and sisters on their beats.

“The disconnect between some communities and police pains me. If only people better understood the true spirit of police officers and their motivation to serve and their desire to be valued. Too many officers are walking wounded with broken hearts that need healing.”

But Levy emphasized that he has no major regrets and is very proud of his career in law enforcement: “There’s nothing more rewarding than saving lives, and I think we cops save a lot of lives, in many different ways.”

Starting, perhaps, with Levy’s own mother back in 1992.

(Mike Moffett of Loudon was introduced to Jeremy Levy at an Orange County coffee shop by his friend and co-author Fahim Fazli, a veteran Hollywood actor. The above story came about following a conversation there.)




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