By Holly Yan, CNN
By age 22, Jason Rivera had already made profound contributions to New York — and on Friday night, he gave his life trying to protect it.
Growing up in Manhattan as part of an immigrant family, the young officer had joined the New York Police Department with a goal of bettering the relationship between officers and the community — all inspired by his own family’s difficult encounter with police.
On Friday night, Rivera was gunned down while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Another officer was left critically wounded.
The nation’s largest city is now grieving the loss of a young man who “exuded” positivity, his high school English teacher, Anthony Voulgarides, told CNN.
“He was self-aware, mature beyond his years,” Voulgarides said.
A painful memory leads to inspiration
Rivera joined the NYPD’s police academy in November 2020. He described how a difficult family encounter with police, followed by changes in community policing, inspired him to become “part of the men in blue.”
“Growing up in Inwood, Manhattan, the community’s relationship between the police and the community was not great,” Rivera wrote to his commanding officer in an undated letter obtained by CNN.
“I remember one day when I witnessed my brother being stopped and frisked. I asked myself, why are we being pulled over if we’re in a taxi? I was too young to know that during that time, the NYPD was pulling over and frisking people at a high rate. My perspective on police and the way they police really bothered me,” Rivera wrote. The NYPD’s controversial policy ended in 2014 after criticism from community leaders and advocates that the practice disproportionately targeted people of color.
“As time went on, I saw NYPD pushing hard on changing the relationship between the police and the community. This was when I realized I wanted to be part of the men in blue; better the relationship between the community and the police,” Rivera wrote. As soon as he applied, Rivera said he “knew this was the career for me.”
“Coming from an immigrant family, I will be the first to say that I am a member of the NYPD, the greatest police force in the world,” Rivera wrote.
As a New York native, Rivera said he knew how “impactful” being an officer could be in such a “chaotic city.”
“I know that something as small as helping a tourist with directions, or helping a couple resolve an issue, will put a smile on someone’s face.”
‘Why wouldn’t I work hard when I have everything I need to be successful?’
When Rivera was 17, he wrote an essay for a college application that Voulgarides found so powerful, the teacher saved a copy of it.
Voulgarides read part of that 2016 essay to CNN on Monday.
“Sometimes I sit in my room alone and think to myself that life is not easy. Sometimes you’re thrown a ball and you have to learn how to dodge that ball. You either stay hurt from the ball thrown at you, or work hard and heal again. That is my mentality,” Rivera wrote.
“I’m very blessed to be the person I am today. You see, I have two legs to walk, two eyes to see and two hands to touch. I have an education in which I don’t have to take a dime out of my pockets. I work. My parents work. My brother is finishing college. Why wouldn’t I work hard when I have everything I need to be successful?”
That essay epitomized Rivera’s maturity and optimism, Voulgarides said.
“It speaks for itself, but Jason was the kind of person who was literally appreciative, grateful for everything he had,” Voulgarides said.
He said Rivera “cared so much about others, appreciated what he had and just exuded this positivity that was such a force in our community.”
‘You gotta put in 100% effort’
As a high school senior, Rivera was passionate about sharing his optimism and inspiring his community.
In 2017, Rivera filmed a motivational speech for younger students at New York’s Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School — part of an assignment for seniors to offer advice to freshman students, Assistant Principal Marelyn Pichardo said.
“When I was a freshman, I didn’t have no one to motivate me. I want to motivate you,” Rivera says in the video.
“Hear my voice and know: you’re gonna get through it. You gotta put in the work, you gotta put in 100% effort. And you know what? If it takes some time after school, you know, so be it. Because you’ve gotta do it,” he says.
“I’m gonna end it with just saying, you know what — you can do it. I did it. All my fellow classmates did it. You definitely can do it, all right? So stay strong, do good in your schools, and trust me, you’ll be finished soon. It goes by like that. All right? Peace.”
“Jason had a huge, warm smile and a personality to match,” the school said in an Instagram post.
“Jason was an exemplary member of our school community, who embodied our core values and lived a life that was dedicated to improving our community. Thank you for your service and sacrifice Jason.”
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CNN’s Mark Morales, Brynn Gingras and Laura Ly contributed to this report.