Rob O’Donnell, a former detective with the New York Police Department, was among first responders to the terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 as well as to the terrorist bombing there eight years earlier.
O’Donnell joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about what that was like.
“A few days before 9/11, I had a homicide [investigation], which probably helped me not be there as soon as I would have been because I ended up working on 9/10 to about 2 in the morning, where I normally would have been at work at 7,” O’Donnell recalls.
“I responded straight down to ground zero on 9/11,” he says. “And if I would have been at the police station, I would have been there that much sooner.”
O’Donnell also discusses the violent attacks on police and other law enforcement across the nation, especially over the past year, related racial tensions, and potential reforms in police departments.
We also cover these stories:
- Republican and Democrat lawmakers clash during a Senate hearing on Democrats’ bill to nationalize elections.
- Senate Democrats Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois say they won’t support Biden administration nominees until they see more diversity.
- Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says the Biden administration is responsible for the influx of migrants to America’s southern border.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Rob O’Donnell, he’s a former NYPD detective. Rob, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Rob O’Donnell: Thanks for having me, Rachel.
Del Guidice: It’s great to have you with us. So, you began your career as an NYC transit cop and then merged into the NYPD in 1995. Can you tell us about that and how you first became interested in law enforcement?
O’Donnell: Law enforcement is a calling. It’s something you always wanted to do. But before law enforcement, I was a crisis preventionist for the Office of Mental Health, where I worked in a troubled school trying to get these kids their GEDs, instead of just throwing them out into society.
They were troubled youth that were either violent or had emotional or psychiatric problems where they weren’t suitable for the official, normal school setting.
So, I was a crisis preventionist. Basically, I was called in to talk them down, to de-escalate them, and certified to restrain them, if necessary, to remove them so they wouldn’t hurt themselves, the teacher, or the students. And this was just an expansion on that.
That background helped me through my law enforcement career, to where learning to talk to people, learning how to respect people’s space, and such like that, which I learned hands-on with these type of children through my career in law enforcement, really helped.
And when I had the opportunity to become a police officer, again, I was hired into the New York City Transit Police under Chief [William] Bratton, which then became Commissioner Bratton under the Giuliani administration.
Seeing his transition of broken windows policing and quality of life enforcement that changed the subway system, and then when he became the police commissioner under [New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani, really set the model nationwide for law enforcement and policing.
Del Guidice: How did you transition into becoming an NYPD detective? And can you tell us about what that was like, some of the things that you did?
O’Donnell: Yeah. As a New York City police officer, again, we merged in 1995, they merged the New York City Housing [Authority] Police, the Transit Police, and the NYPD into one police force. And I was promoted.
I was one of 1,400 officers out of 30,000 that were promoted to police officer special assignment for extraordinary duty and dedication to law enforcement. We were recognized by the police commissioner and then promoted to a police officer special assignment.
And from there, I worked toward my detective shield. I worked in places like the Organized Crime Control Bureau, narcotics, both in Queens, Brooklyn. And then I eventually went to a Precinct Detective Squad and transitioned into the homicide task force, where I retired out of.
Del Guidice: You worked for the departments of Organized Crime Control Bureau, Precinct Detective Squad, as you mentioned some of these. Can you talk about some of the experiences that you worked on or just things maybe you learned from these different assignments you were doing?
O’Donnell: It was a wide array, starting off in narcotics and then going to where you strictly kind of enforce narcotic violations, both large and small, then going to the Precinct Detective Squad, where you handle everything from domestic abuse to assault, to thefts, to burglaries, to robberies. Anything that happens in that precinct’s jurisdiction is normally held by the Precinct Detective Squad and any homicides in that.
We had several homicides. Actually, a few days before 9/11, I had a homicide, which probably helped me not be there as soon as I would have been because I ended up working on 9/10 to about 2 in the morning where I normally would have been at work at 7.
It was like, all right, come in when you come in, because we worked for four days straight on a homicide, but I responded straight down to ground zero on 9/11. And if I would have been at the police station, I would have been there that much sooner.
Del Guidice: I wanted to talk to you about, on the 9/11 experience, you were involved in response and rescue, as you mentioned. Can you walk us through, since you were there, just what you’re able to about that experience, … what your response was, what you remember from that?
O’Donnell: A common phrase I use [is], “If you weren’t there, no words will ever describe it. If you were there, no words are necessary. If you have forgotten what happened there, then you’re not worthy of my words.” And that kind of sums up my experience there.
Unfortunately, I’m the only first responder in America that’s been involved with four domestic terrorist attacks on our nation.
I responded as a rookie transit police officer to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I responded to 9/11 and worked there for a year afterward as a detective, doing the DNA collection and sifting through the rubble and notifying the families.
After retiring, due to injuries sustained in the line of duty and having a couple of surgeries and moving to Pennsylvania, I became the director of public safety for an area there and ended up dealing with the Fort Dix terror plot suspects that were practicing to shoot soldiers and their families at Fort Dix.
They were shooting paintball guns in our community. We ended up citing them and ended up paying their fines with checking accounts that the FBI and the U.S. attorney were very interested in. So, I ended up dealing with them.
And most recently, my son is a graduate of the Naval Academy and was in Naval Air Station Pensacola when the Saudi naval pilot shot up the Naval Station, and killing three sailors. My son was in the building and called me while that shooting was taking place, and I could to hear the shots in the background.
Teaching that nationwide, as a critical response instructor, actually living it where your son calls you and you can hear shots in the background is surreal and [I] never felt so helpless in my life.
But unfortunately, I’ve had those four experiences, which is why I’m so passionate about speaking on law enforcement and things we deal with nationally.
If just me, just a regular one of hundreds of thousands of police officers have been directly involved in incidents like that, we need to create policing in America where those types of things are either minimal or don’t happen at all.
Del Guidice: As someone who was there on 9/11 and in some of these other disasters, you’ve seen firsthand what happens in attacks that have taken place.
Just given all the rhetoric, especially in the past year of cancel culture and people attacking, honestly, the history of this country, I guess, what is your response or what is your thought when you see this happening?
And then, when you are someone who has responded to attacks on the country and you were there dealing with the aftermath?
O’Donnell: The forgetting of history makes you a prime candidate to relive it. I’d rather not see that because I’ve seen enough in my lifetime. Seeing what’s going on with the police and the cancel culture and just everything in our nation now is sort of a selfish reason.
I’m glad I’m not in law enforcement anymore because to see a career I loved and dedicated my life to and parts of my body, to see the false rhetoric and the false narratives and the attacks that are based on zero facts and evidence—
We can improve on anything. There’s no profession that’s perfect. No profession will ever be perfect, but we have to start that conversation from a place of fact, not fiction. And when we start that conversation from a place of fiction, you’re already on polar opposites, where you’re never going to meet common ground.
Yes, let’s make policing better. Let’s make community policing better. Let’s increase those relationships between the police, the community, politicians, and everything. But again, when there’s such false rhetoric thrown in, when the data just doesn’t support it whatsoever, there’s no common ground to get there.
Del Guidice: You had mentioned that you had to retire due to injuries you sustained in the line of duty. Can you tell us about what happened?
O’Donnell: I ended up breaking my neck, in all essence. I ended up getting steel rods in my neck, fusing several of my vertebrae. So, once that happened, it’s pretty much, they can’t have you chasing bad guys and jumping over fences when you have that type of injury because then you bloat it and that could be crippling.
Del Guidice: Well, currently, you sit as the director of business and media relations with Brothers Before Others. Can you tell us about Brothers Before Others, as well as what other organizations you’re involved in?
O’Donnell: Sure. Brothers Before Others is a national law enforcement charity. And some people will say, “Well, Brothers Before Others, that’s kind of sexist,” but you can’t spell “brothers” without “her” in there. And a large portion of our membership are women and are very supportive of our organization.
We started off sending flower arrangements to every line of duty death in the country to the tune of $300,000 now over the past six years. Each of these big flower arrangements are $200 or $250 each.
And we wanted law enforcement and their families, their department to know that there’s people in America that care about you. There’s people that you’ve never met that are in your shoes that stand by you and mourn with you. So, we started off doing that and then we’ve become connected.
One of our members is a forensic sketch artist in Philadelphia, Jonny Castro, and he does Jonny Castro Art. He does portraits for every line of duty death in the country. So, now we’re giving portraits of these deceased loved ones.
A lot of times, you’ll see the big portrait, the 16-by-20-something portrait, next to the casket because we get them there, because we’re nationwide, so we usually have them hand-delivered. Where in the past, he was just putting it in the mail and mailing them to the families, we’re having them hand-delivered by our members in those areas.
We’ve done so much. We’ve done Christmas for underprivileged schools in New Jersey, where our headquarters is based. We’ve done hospital Christmases for children’s hospitals all across the tri-state area, California, Florida, things like that, to where we impact the community and show that relationship between the community.
One of the most recent ones, this last Christmas, … we picked the poorest district in New Jersey. And we were originally just going to do K-4, and then we saw the need and we ended up doing the entire school, which was K-8.
The teacher and the principal and the superintendent, the school came to us when we were doing it, in the process of doing it, and says, “These are probably the only gifts these kids are going to get this year.” And that really touched us, and to get the thank yous from the families.
We had boy and girls. We got wish lists from the kids beforehand, where our members went out and bought things and wrapped things, where we had wrapping parties, where we wrapped 800 gifts.
Those are the things in the community that really bring the law enforcement and the community of all demographics, all backgrounds, all races, all religions, all financial ability together.
Del Guidice: That’s beautiful. So, we talked a little bit about cancel culture, but specifically, when it comes to attacks this country has seen in law enforcement, especially within the past year, can you talk a little bit about your reaction to that, especially when it comes to mean attacks on your brothers, essentially?
O’Donnell: Yeah, it’s really given me my place, my motivation.
Active law enforcement officers, by policy, can’t have a voice in America. They’re not allowed to speak their mind. They’re not allowed to say what they’re going through because of department, anti-social media policies. It’s down to the point now where if their wives or husband likes something, they’re being questioned over that.
So, I’m that voice. I don’t have the restrictions of having a department policy over me. And I have my ear to the law enforcement officers across the nation, what they’re going through amongst themselves with their supervision, with politicians, with the community. And I speak on that. And again, we get back to that false rhetoric, the narratives.
There’s 800,000 police officers, sworn law enforcement officers in America. There are 300 million police community contacts a year, 30 million criminal investigation contacts, 1.7 million violent felonies.
Police in 2019 shot under a thousand people and only 54 of those thousand people were unarmed. So, now you’re talking 5% of all shootings are the unarmed civilians.
And then when you break down the unarmed civilians, most of them are white people. So, it’s not that police are just indiscriminately shooting unarmed black people in the community.
If you listen to the false rhetoric out there, we’re gunning down black children all across America. I think there was a recent poll where they said they thought it was in thousands. … In 2019, do you know how many unarmed black children under the age of 18 that police officers shot and killed? [It] was one.
And it was an 18-year-old who was on drugs, naked, beating his girlfriend and her best friend who she called for help. When the police got there, he fled, they chased him, he started fighting with them, they tasered him twice, and he tried to remove the officer’s gun, so the partner shot him.
Now, it’s classified as an unarmed shooting because it started off unarmed, but once you grab that gun and once you’re in a fight with an armed police officer, you’re no longer unarmed, whoever wins that fight is armed. So, that’s the shooting and that’s the reality of it.
Things that happened like with George Floyd and the incidents that have sparked riots across the nation, let’s investigate. There’s not a police officer I know that didn’t see the George Floyd video and said that it wasn’t important. It was common ground.
We all thought it was disgusting. There’s avenues to investigate that, there’s avenues to punish that. But now you have prosecutors overcharging and trying to please the public to where in a year from now, or actually a couple of months now, when that goes to trial and they can’t live up to the charges that they’ve brought, we’re going to go through this all over again. Because, in my opinion, they did overcharge. They did rush to judgment, because they had to appease the public crowd.
That’s not what investigations are for. Investigations are to look at the facts and charge appropriately, not based on emotion, but the law.
Anyone who saw the video has emotional feelings on that and that’s fine to have, but I want to see the proper charges filed. I want to see the officer held accountable under those proper charges, not get acquitted and we have riots nationwide, which hurt hundreds of more police officers, arrest thousands of individuals, and we’re back to square one.
Del Guidice: Since you mention that, and just looking [at the] big picture, what can be done? Are there any sort of reforms that you think should be pursued as all of these discussions are taking place?
O’Donnell: There’s always room for improvement. I mean, let’s go back to the George Floyd incident. The time to review a policy is a constant ever-changing process. It shouldn’t have to come to an incident like a George Floyd to where they have to rewrite their policies.
Minneapolis policy states that they can use a knee on the neck until the individual’s unconscious, if all other methods fail. That’s in their policy. Now, that’s what he did, but he also held that in excess, after the individual was unconscious for several minutes, based on the video.
But there’s not a police officer in this country that writes their own policy. Police leadership writes those policies, politicians write those policies, lawmakers write those policies, but they want to throw the beat officer or the officers on the street under the bus when something like this happens, when their policies failed.
And again, there’s mistakes to be made, but there’s levels to investigate that, more than any other thing I know. If a doctor makes a mistake, there’s legal process for them to go after medical malpractice, which is one of the No. 1 deaths in the country. But you’ll hear about law enforcement way more than you hear about the medical malpractice deaths.
When a police officer does something wrong or right and his direct supervision investigates it, you have internal affairs investigating it, you have the chief’s office investigating it, you have the district attorney, you have the Department of Justice and special prosecutors in certain cases. You have multiple levels to hold that officer accountable and they are most oftentimes.
But again, these decisions can’t be made off emotion, they have to be made on the facts, the laws, and the policies that are in place. To see the changes where we are now, this “defund the police” movement, is just sad and it’s not going to last. What they’re going to do is—it’s a shell game.
They’re going to take this money that they would normally use for the police departments and they’re funding them toward other areas, like they’re moving traffic control to the Department of Transportation. They’re moving some emotional responses, emotionally disturbed persons responses to social workers.
They’re just moving that money to one area and crime is going to rise and then they’re going to go to the public and say, “Well, for public safety reasons, we’ve got to raise your taxes.” Because they’re not going to take that money back from these organizations. They’re funding these pet policies they’ve wanted to fund their whole lives. This is just a method to do that.
Del Guidice: Going back to New York City where you served for so long, it had a long period of high crime. … In the past, it became a safer city, but given current trends, where do you see the direction for the city going now?
O’Donnell: Unfortunately, I worked in the city before it got better. … My first assignment was 42nd Street in Times Square when it was still run by porno theaters and dregs of society where you couldn’t walk five steps without a stabbing or a robbery or rape. That’s where my career started.
And to see it cleaned up to where it basically became Disney World—Disney owns most of the 42nd Street now and the shows and the way it’s become a tourist attraction, to see that change and the economy changed with it, when businesses started thriving back, when the tourism industry hit record highs, but to see where we’re declining now, to see that go back, we are going back to late 1980s, 1990s crime.
And what’s that going to do? [It’s going to] chase industry, chase tourism, chase the good people in New York that just want to get out their tax base. Those apartments and housing in New York City are very expensive and pay very high taxes. The housing market itself has seen how much percentage decrease over the past couple of months? And COVID and the pandemic restrictions aren’t helping that.
Del Guidice: Well, racial tension seemed to be a significant factor in police controversies, like we’ve talked about. And so, did your experience working as a police officer in a city like New York City, with a diverse population, give you insights into this issue and if there’s anything that can be done about it?
O’Donnell: Honesty is the best policy when it comes to that. In my career, I don’t care what color you were, how you were raised, what religion you were. You were my partner, you were next to me, my life depended on you and your life depends on me. We need to get back to that.
With a lot of the rhetoric out there and the racial tensions and the stoking of what’s happening—you take an organization like Black Lives Matter. You hear the term “black lives matter,” and who doesn’t agree with that? Everyone does, but they’re conflating that with an organization that goes out there and burns cities down.
So, when you say, “Oh, you’re anti-black lives matter.” No, I’m anti the organization Black Lives Matter, because look at what they’ve done. As far as the term “black lives matter,” I’m all for it. Of course they do, but it shouldn’t be one life matters over another or this, and that’s where we got where you had the Black Lives Matter.
Then when the two officers were killed, [Rafael] Ramos and [Wenjian] Liu, in New York City, that sparked Blue Lives Matter. And it just furthers the divide, but Blue Lives Matter isn’t going out there and rioting in cities.
So, we need an honest dialogue, but again, we need to start that conversation from a place of fact, not fiction. And there’s just so much fiction out there and so much emotion and feelings. And a lot of times, perception’s harder to deal with than reality.
I can’t change, I can’t tell you what you feel, what you believe. I can’t change that. You’re going to have to change that. You’re going to have to look at the facts and make your own decision. Where if there’s a tangible issue, like if there [were] real white supremacists going around New York City and beating people and chasing people down and such like that, that’s something tangible. You go out there and you address it, aggressively.
But if people just feel that that’s the way it is—like the unarmed black kids in America, they think there’s hundreds and thousands of these kids that are getting killed when it’s just not the facts.
The more we talk about the facts, the more that we allow ourselves to have that open discussion. Even if you disagree with it, have the discussion, look at the facts, agree to disagree based on the facts, but we need to do better on getting that out there.
Del Guidice: Lastly, I’m sure there are a lot of people who are listening who want to know what they can do. So, how would you encourage the everyday citizen to support law enforcement?
O’Donnell: Say “thank you,” speak to your officers, talk to them, ask them what’s on their mind. Don’t be afraid when you see that law enforcement officer.
And I don’t care who you are, what color you are, speak to your local police officer, tell them your fears, let them give you a response back to help calm those fears, tell him your concerns. Let’s hear their side of the story.
Let them know that you appreciate them being out there. Let them know what they can support to have their leadership in the police departments and political leadership make for a better environment for both the police and the community.
That conversation should be happening on every street corner every time a police interacts with someone.
Every time someone sees a police officer, take that 30 seconds to say, “How are you doing? What can the public do to make your job easier? What’s the biggest factor that you’re dealing with in your job? Hey, as a citizen, this is my biggest fear living in this city, and XYZ.” Get that dialogue going.
Maybe you have a fear that’s unfounded, like, again, your perception, and that officer can say, “Well, really, ma’am, we don’t have that issue here. It’s very rare that that kind of crime happens. You don’t need to be afraid of that, but you should watch out for this, this, and this, which is something separate,” which might be a lot less. Or just that public safety community policing aspect of, be aware of what’s going on in your community and vice versa.
But that dialogue goes both ways. As we should be listening to officers, officers need to listen to the public too and get their perception and see what the feeling on the ground is in the communities they serve.
Del Guidice: Rob, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast,” and also thank you for your service.
O’Donnell: Thank you very much. You guys have a great day.