Why the murders of NYPD Officers Jones and Piagentini still resonate

Although we do a lot of things right in the law enforcement profession, we don't do a good job of ensuring our history is passed along from one generation to the next


On the evening of May 21, 1971, New York City Police Department (NYPD) Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini were called to investigate a disturbance in the Colonial Park Houses on W. 159th St. The officers parked their patrol car on W. 155th St. near the Macombs Dam Bridge crossing of the Harlem River, and walked down a set of stairs to access the public housing area below, where the call had come from.

After finding no evidence of a disturbance, Officers Jones and Piagentini began the return journey to their patrol car.

They never made it.

Pictured is NYPD Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini. (Photo/NYPD)
Pictured is NYPD Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini. (Photo/NYPD)

Officer Ambush

The report was fraudulent, and was meant to lure the unsuspecting officers into a trap. Jones and Piagentini didn't know that a group of armed men awaited them in the dark shadows of the North Harlem neighborhood.

Shortly before 2200 hours, the normal sounds of city life were interrupted by a series of gunshots from a .45 caliber handgun. The first of the gunshots came from a distance of approximately six inches, and struck Officer Jones in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The next three rapid-fire shots from the handgun hit the 33-year-old officer – a father of three children – in the neck, lower back and thigh as he fell to the ground.

Officer Piagentini was simultaneously shot to the ground with .38 caliber gunfire, and a round from the .45 caliber handgun that had just killed his partner. As the critically wounded officer – a 28-year-old father of two daughters, aged 3 years and 15 months – pleaded for his life, the ambushers took his service weapon from his holster and shot him with it.

Piagentini was shot a total of 13 times (12 shots with a .38, 1 shot with a .45), leaving 22 entry and exit wounds in his body. He died enroute to the hospital.

Domestic Terrorists

The men who ambushed Officers Jones and Piagentini were members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a left-wing radical group that advocated violent socialist revolution and black separatism.

This offshoot of the Black Panther Party (BPP) shared the same anti-government, black-nationalist, socialist orientation of the Panthers, but took its activities underground after witnessing the above-ground BPP get decimated by the targeted focus of domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Both the BLA and the BPP were committed to using violence to achieve their goals. Each attacked government institutions and buildings, and engaged in criminal activities to fund their domestic terrorism.

And each of them murdered police officers for political reasons.

Just as the Black Panther Party murdered Oakland Police Officer John Frey, the Black Liberation Army targeted police officers for assassination.

Three months after the setup and murder of Officers Jones and Piagentini, two of their killers were involved in the murder of San Francisco Police Department Sergeant John Victor Young. Later in San Francisco, Officer Jones’ duty weapon was recovered after BLA members attempted to murder another policeman with it.

Back in New York, less than a year after the Jones and Piagentini murders, the BLA ambushed another pair of NYPD officers, shooting Officer Gregory Foster and Officer Rocco Laurie in the back, on 14 February 1972. In the Foster and Laurie ambush, the BLA killers followed a now-familiar pattern, disarming the fallen officers and shooting them with their own duty weapons as they lay mortally wounded. As in the Jones and Piagentini murders, several members of the gang who ambushed Foster and Laurie were later killed or captured in the course of another shootout with police, and one of them was caught with Officer Laurie’s stolen service weapon.

In total, the BLA killed approximately 16 officers and wounded another two in the years between 1971 and 1974.

The importance of looking back

Many of today's police officers are probably unfamiliar with the BLA and their ambush murders of Officers Jones, Piagentini and another dozen-plus officers. Although we do a lot of things right in the law enforcement profession, we frequently don't do a good job of ensuring our history is passed along from one generation to the next.

This is a problem with real consequences. Our failure to teach new generations of officers about their history encourages critical gaps in readiness, knowledge, mindset and professionalism.

Consider, for example, that the threat posed by groups such as the BLA is not just a historical footnote, but a contemporary danger that confronts officers today.

The December 20, 2014, murders of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the July 7, 2016, murders of Dallas Police Department (DPD) Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, DPD Officer Michael Krol, DPD Sergeant Michael Smith, Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Department Officer Brent Thompson, and DPD Officer Patricio Zamarripa, and the July 17, 2016, murders of East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Bradford Garafola, Baton Rouge Police Department Officer Matthew Gerald, and Baton Rouge Police Department Corporal Montrell Jackson, were all committed by men who shared the same beliefs, motivations and associations as the BLA and BPP assassins of the 1960s and 1970s.

The current generation of killers shares clear links to those of previous generations, and if we would hope to understand the modern iteration of the threat, we should start at the roots, with the historical one.

Additionally, the officer safety lessons from prior attacks are often timeless.

A study of prior incidents like the Jones/Piagentini attack or the Foster/Laurie attack will usually net valuable information that can shape modern tactics, policies, equipment and mindset. This is particularly true for high-risk, low-frequency events like police ambushes, which we thankfully don't see a lot of.

While environments, uniforms, titles and equipment change, there are some things about police work that are timeless, and today's officers would be wise to heed the hard-earned advice of the officers who came before them, and learn the lessons that they paid for in blood.

But most important, understanding our history helps us to understand that we're part of something bigger. The badge you wear connects you to a rich history and a larger family that arcs not just across the country, or the world, but across time itself.

You may have never heard of Officer Jones or Officer Piagentini, or any of the other officers mentioned in this article, but they’re all your brothers, their families are your family, and their loss is yours.

Like you, they were an essential part of the fabric of the law enforcement profession, responsible for upholding the ideals, values and traditions that serve to bond all officers, regardless of their uniform or in-service date.

Knowing our history makes us accountable to those who came before us and to those who will come after us, and serves to promote the professionalism that the public rightfully expects of its police.

Betrayal

Knowing our history also helps us to deal with the unpleasantness of the present.

On March 14, 2018, one of the three convicted killers of Officers Jones and Piagentini was granted parole by the New York State Parole Board. The assassin who shot Officer Piagentini with his own gun as he pleaded for his life – the same murderer who participated in the assassination of Sergeant Young in San Francisco – is now going to walk free after serving only 45 years in custody.

The betrayal of the Jones and Piagentini families – indeed, the entire police profession and family – by the parole board is inexcusable and upsetting. The board short-circuited the administration of justice for heinous crimes that the killer has never expressed genuine remorse for, sending a dangerous message to criminals who attack law enforcement.

The way ahead

Fortunately our understanding of history provides us the tools necessary to deal with this injustice.

We need not waste our time thinking of the killer or his fate. He’s an old man now, and will soon meet the eternal justice that he cannot escape from.

Instead the ghosts of Officers Jones and Piagentini challenge you to focus your energy on more important pursuits:

  • Learn from their sacrifice.
  • Discover the officer safety lessons from their example.
  • Remember to train hard, wear your vest, maintain situational awareness and use good tactics.
  • Practice your counter-ambush techniques.
  • Listen to that inner voice that tells you something is wrong.
  • Take care of those left behind, and never let them forget that they're still part of the family.

You are part of a chain of officers that stretches back for generations. You have a role to play in protecting the integrity of that link, honoring the past, and upholding the standards of the profession. So, take care of each other, remember those who came before you, and set the example for those who will follow. This is the essence of what makes law enforcement a profession – at its best, a calling – and not just a job.

God bless you all, and stay safe out there.

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