Fragility

Dennis Byrd was an inspiration to many.

Dennis Byrd was an inspiration to many.

In 1992, Dennis Byrd,  a talented defensive lineman for the New York Jets was paralyzed after a vicious collision on the field.
Byrd was a talented player and only 26 when his career ended in a flash.

The injury hit many of my friends very hard.
While a few were Jets fans, the reason Byrd’s injury resonated among our circle was that we had two friends who suffered neck and spinal injuries in freak and tragic accidents the summer after our senior year in high school.
Ten years before, in 1982– within a short time frame– two friends dove into pools–one broke his neck and was nearly paralyzed and the other was paralyzed and later passed away from complications related to the injuries.
It was devastating.
One friend came crazy close to paralysis–centimeters–and ended up in a “halo” for a fairly long period of time. At the time–as the cliché goes– we felt immortal and many of us took some crazy risks as 17-18 year old boys tend to do.
And our friend, well over six feet, athletic and strong as a bull, seemed proof to me of our invincibility. I learned the day of the pool party that he wasn’t.
Our other friend– not as close– but a guy we knew well and really liked since we were little guys wasn’t as fortunate. He was paralyzed from the initial injury and didn’t last long.
It was brutally sad. You couldn’t have found a nicer kid. He too was young and athletic.
So when Byrd was hurt on the field a decade later it brought forth a flood of memories. And fears. At least for me.
One time, for a newspaper story at the old Delray Times, I underwent hypnosis and was later told I talked extensively about being in a wheelchair unable to move.
When I shared that experience with my mom she told me that when I was a small child she would often see me staring at people in wheelchairs and would have to tell me to stop looking.
Apparently, one time a man in a chair noticed me looking and called me over. My mom told me I walked toward him and he asked me if I had any questions.
I asked him what was it like to not be able to walk, run and play sports. My mom was mortified. But the man laughed and said it was OK to ask. He said that in his dreams he ran and played basketball and that’s why he often looked forward to sleep.
It was a teachable moment. And my mother said the lesson was to be grateful for what you have and can do. She said never take anything for granted. She might have mentioned to be careful;  a lesson that I probably didn’t immediately absorb considering an ill fated sky diving accident I had a few years later. (Another story for another time).
Dennis Byrd rehabbed and through medical intervention and sheer will learned to walk again. They honored him at the stadium a year or so later and even made a TV movie about his struggle to walk again.
Last week, he was killed in a car accident in Oklahoma. Hit by a 17 year old teenage boy who lost control of his vehicle and struck Byrd’s truck.
Dennis Byrd was 50.
A sad ending for an inspirational guy.
I read recently about a spike in auto fatalities.

Experts blame a lot of the spike on distracted drivers. Locally, I see a lot of aggressive driving. The two most dangerous things I do most days is make a left out of my neighborhood onto Lake Ida Road having to account for four lanes of traffic moving in opposite directions and often flying through a school zone. The other dangerous move is turning into my office on Second Avenue in Boca …fearful of slowing down to turn into the driveway… with speeding drivers tailgating. Why are we in such a hurry?
I’m not sure of the precise details of the Byrd accident. Frankly I found it too sad to delve into further. I just know he’s gone.
And it reminds me of how fragile we all are. One friend dives into a pool and lives, another dies. A young football player takes a hit and suffers greatly only to be taken from this world on a lonely Oklahoma highway.

It makes you think.

We’re Asking Too Much Of Officers

Baton

It’s Monday morning.

Another weekend of carnage in America. Another three police officers murdered. Another three shot in Baton Rouge.
When the news flashed, I thought immediately of Dallas Police Chief David Brown. His words ring truer every day.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” the police chief said at a briefing last Monday. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem, let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Chief Brown is correct. 
In Delray too, we ask a whole lot of our police. And our firefighters too.

Someone overdoses on heroin let the cops and paramedics save them. No facilities for the homeless guy who scares you, no worries call the cops, they’ll deal with it.
We want our cops to live in our city but we don’t pay them enough to live here and if you mention the need for workforce housing–which almost always requires density– we adopt policies that make sure it will never happen. (I’m holding out hope for Congress Avenue).
And when it comes time to compensate them we cry poverty and moan about their pensions.
Are pension liabilities a concern? You betcha, a big one, so why not roll up our sleeves and help solve the issue because you can’t just wish it away and the men and women who protect and serve us deserve security when they retire. If you have financial acumen think of applying for the pension board, maybe you can help. But don’t begrudge a cop or a firefighter if they have a pension. They earn it.
It’s a tough season to be a police officer in America. It’s a tough season for everyone period.
Last week I had the occasion to speak to several officers. They are aching for their brothers and sisters in Dallas and now in Baton Rouge.
When I was on the City Commission we solved a serious attrition and recruitment issue with a package that included take home cars for officers who lived in Delray or within a few miles of the city. The literature at the time showed that having police cruisers in neighborhoods lowered crime and was popular with residents who felt safer living in a neighborhood populated with officers.
I believed that, still do.
But last week, I heard from a few officers who were concerned about bringing their cars home. They were worried about being targeted. They had read reports from around the country that police cars were being vandalized.
It’s heartbreaking to hear.
Our community has been largely supportive of our Police Department for a long time now.
I’m not referring to politics and labor negotiations –which have been good and bad over the years depending on the players involved– but about the larger community which seems to get how important our police officers are to the welfare of our city.
Every chance I get (this time included) I like to credit our officers for creating a safer city which enabled our turnaround to take place. If a community doesn’t  feel safe, you can’t attract investment or families. It’s just that simple.
But these days, there’s an overall feeling of unease in America. We are not immune.
We have so much work to do. So much trust to restore. So much fear and hatred to overcome.
We shouldn’t rest until every boy and every girl is given real opportunity. We shouldn’t rest until and every man and woman goes to bed knowing they can find a job and if not they will still have a roof over their head and food for their families.
Is that asking too much in a country with our resources and ingenuity?
I don’t think so. I don’t believe most Americans feel this way either.
We wrote last week, that while our national politics were a mess, there was hope for progress in our cities. 
So we have to get to work. We have to create a community of opportunity for everyone. 
We have to be focused on jobs, education, strengthening families, enriching our cultural opportunities and restoring civility. Have you seen a city commission meeting lately?
Too often instead of debate, we engage in coarse, personal attacks. We label people, dismiss them, call them self serving or worse. We can do better. We have done better.
It’s going to take work. It’s going to take vision and investment. It’s going to take dialogue and a commitment to understanding. More people have to be engaged in the important work of community building.  
It starts with engagement and dialogue. But it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end period. We have to keep  working. There are problems to solve and we can do it. There are opportunities to create and we know how to do that as well.
We can’t just leave it for the cops to handle. They need our help. Now.