Have you ever had something said to you that you have heard many times, but just once, just this once, those words resonate with you as never before?
Last May, during the Police Unity Tour, an annual event honoring fallen law enforcement officers, I was speaking with a New York City police lieutenant about the recent line-of-duty death of a New York City police officer. The lieutenant served in many assignments, including the NYPD Highway Patrol Unit. On April 27, 13 days prior to the start of the Tour, NYPD Highway Patrol Police Officer Anastasios Tsakos, a 43-year-old, 14-year veteran of the department, was directing traffic at a fatal motor vehicle accident on the Long Island Expressway in Queens when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver. I asked the lieutenant if he knew Anastasios Tsakos while in Highway. He said he didn’t, and then, lowering and shaking his head, he sorrowfully said, “He was just doing his job.”
“Just doing his job” — how many times have we heard that during our careers? So much so that it has become part of the law enforcement lexicon. For example, when the media interviews a police officer about a notable incident they were involved in and asks a question about the officer’s courage and fortitude, their response is usually, “I was just doing my job,” a self-effacing way of saying, “Hell yeah, I put my life on the line so someone else could live.”
“Just doing their job” is even pervasive in the public’s dialogue. During the aftermath of a police officer’s death in the line of duty, we frequently hear, “Well, that’s what they signed up for.” Whoa, wait a minute! Death is not what a police officer signs up for; it’s not part of the terms of employment or the officer’s expectations. A police officer is trained to survive, not die, and do so while honoring their oath.
The nation recently observed the 20-year remembrance of September 11, 2001. At the World Trade Center, we lost 2,338 civilians who were simply doing their jobs that horrible day. In addition, 72 law enforcement officers and 343 firefighters were killed while saving the lives of thousands more. Can we say of those 415 first responders, “They were just doing their jobs?” I think not. They were doing what was expected of them, honoring their sacred oath.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “oath” as “A solemn, formal declaration or promise to fulfill a pledge, often calling on God, a god or a sacred object as witness.” Not many professions require their employees to recite an oath, and those that do involve serious legal consequences if someone violates their oath. Performing under oath is not just doing a job; it is, in simple terms, promising to act. Just doing your job and working under an oath are not the same. Yes, an oath is a legal obligation, but deeper than that, an oath is a sacred, moral obligation that must be fulfilled. That’s why the words “going above and beyond” are not platitudinous but are reserved for extraordinary, exceptional selfless action — an action not mentioned anywhere in a police officer’s job description.
Returning to April 27, 2021, on the Long Island Expressway, Officer Tsakos was on duty, and yes, doing his job, a job requiring him to act under his oath and ensure the safety of motorists in a dangerous and confusing environment. If he were to talk to us today, he most certainly would say, “I was just doing my job.” We know, though, he was doing so much more.