It’s hard for me to imagine the New York City Police Department without Steven McDonald in it. I was 13-years old when a suspected bicycle thief fired three shots from a .22 caliber revolver and left McDonald for dead in Central Park on July 12, 1986. My father’s prayers—like those of every NYPD cop at the time—were answered when McDonald miraculously survived the attack.

Our heroes are usually a mixture of myth and caricature. Not so with McDonald, who despite being paralyzed from the neck down remained with the NYPD until his death this week from a heart attack at 59. “There were two ways to move forward,” McDonald said after the shooting. “And that was to love and forgive the boy who shot me, or as other people have done, condemn him, criticize him in the harshest terms for what he did to me and my family and friends. But God was there in our lives, guiding us, inspiring us.” Detective First Grade Steven McDonald was no myth. He was the real deal.

In the years following his injuries, the strength that McDonald and his family exhibited became an indelible part of the city—and beyond. He took an event that was out of his control and used it to carry out a mission that was within his control by spreading a message of forgiveness. If Steven McDonald could forgive the kid who paralyzed him, the rest of us could probably find a way to forgive those who commit much smaller offenses in our own lives. The humble, wheel-chair bound cop inspired presidents, cardinals, and world-famous athletes, yet most of his good works never made the front pages. Many who live in the New York area can recall when McDonald lent his support to a local cause, spoke to students at a school, or stood alongside his brothers and sisters in blue as the policing profession became a convenient foil for opportunistic politicians.

Even as the world learned his name and heard his story, McDonald remained a cop at heart. He wore his NYPD uniform and detective shield Number 104 with beaming pride. Just last month, he spoke before a roll call at the 33rd Precinct stationhouse in Washington Heights. He was again talking about forgiveness and the need to redefine ourselves in our occupation. “That is what motivates us,” McDonald said to those assembled. “We want everybody to feel safe and everybody to feel the peace that we all need.”

Since 1986, McDonald inspired every New York City police officer to become better than we thought we were capable of being. When my academy class took the oath in 1997, McDonald talked to us about the role we would play in the city we all loved. While his words motivated us to be a positive force in the lives of those we encountered, the example he set proved the point. “The most important thing we can take away from my father is his mission of love, compassion, and forgiveness,” said McDonald’s son Conor, who was born six months after the shooting. “That cannot die. That has to keep going. That has to transcend.”

The promise to remember the fallen is as permanent as the oath to serve and protect. The NYPD is good at saying goodbye to our heroes but we never get used to it.

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