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How An Ex Convict Became Involved With Police Reform

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Richard Rivera is a community board member of the Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative in upstate New York. After the killing of George Floyd, Governor Andrew Cuomo called for municipalities to come up with ideas to change policing. Ithaca created the collaborative. Richard Rivera's appointment is controversial. 40 years ago, when he was 16, he shot and killed Robert Walsh, an off-duty New York police officer, during a failed robbery in a Queens bar. Mr. Walsh was the father of four children.

Mr. Rivera spent 39 years in prison for his murder. He earned a degree while incarcerated and was released on parole in 2019. He now works as an outreach coordinator at a program that assists the homeless in Tompkins County, which is where Ithaca is located. Richard Rivera joins us now from Ithaca, N.Y. Mr. Rivera, thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD RIVERA: Thank you. You know, I listened to you a lot while incarcerated. I mean, NPR is the station that we generally listened to (laughter).

SIMON: Well, thank you. I don't - I'm not sure I've heard that before, so - do you understand why people don't want to hear anything you have to say because of what you did?

RIVERA: Yes, I understand that. I don't know if I can say anything that would change their minds. I just know I was invited to participate, and I've tried to serve as a conduit for populations that are directly impacted by policing.

SIMON: Well, you know, you read some what we used to call tabloid newspapers, you know, it's almost presented as if you were advising the governor of the state on police reforms.

RIVERA: A lot of what was reported in The New York Post was factually incorrect. It wasn't a planned robbery. We ended up there at 12:00 at night. We put on stocking masks. Somebody bought stocking masks that were dark. We put them on there. We were high. We went in there to rob the place. It was confusing. It was hot. We were scared. And somebody pulled out a gun. I shot two shots and ran out of there.

When it was reported in the first newspaper interviews, somebody described this execution-style murder. I wasn't convicted of that. I wasn't charged with that. Nobody - we had a two and a half month trial, and no one spoke about this execution-style murder. It's always been a tabloid narrative that's been played over and over again because it is sensational. All I'm doing is bringing individuals to participate in the focus groups.

SIMON: What do you think you can add to a group?

RIVERA: Well, my connections with the communities that I work with, the most vulnerable and at-risk groups in Ithaca, allows me to speak to them, to encourage them to participate in this discussion. And I think this discussion is important. I think this moment is historical. So I think the voices of those that are most directly impacted and are least likely to participate in the discourse should be included. And my job was just to bring those voices on board.

SIMON: What do people tell you that you pass on?

RIVERA: They speak about defunding, abolishing, demilitarizing the police. Not one of the individuals I interview - those who are directly impacted - talked about abolishing or defunding the police. They want a police who's less authoritative, less aggressive, less warrior-like when they enter their community. They're speaking about guardians, someone that treats them like a human being and engages them on a level that they understand, that is community-based.

SIMON: Do you have any concern that good things you have to say might be discounted because they're being passed along from someone who shot a stranger in the head?

RIVERA: Yes, I understand. And I struggled with this for the last 41 years. I did a horrible and terrible thing when I was a 16-year-old boy. I couldn't read. I couldn't write. I was drug addicted. I was - come from a broken - none of those are excuses.

SIMON: This was the father of four.

RIVERA: Yes. He's a brother. He's a husband. He's a son. He is a total human being. So I struggle in this - with this. And what am I going to do? How am I going to live my life? How am I going to move forward? I could get stuck on this pace of guilt and loathing. But I decided I have to do something. What can I do? And how do I reconcile myself with this most horrible deed?

Now, I don't know who Robert Walsh was as a human being, but I hold him to the very standards, the very highest standards of what a human being is. And I try to live up to those standards, and that's what I'm doing now. So when I was released into this community, I have dedicated myself to a life of service. That may not mean anything to the victims. I understand their anger. But it allows me, at least, to move forward and to try to do something positive out of the waste that I've created.

SIMON: What do you hope you can do, underscoring, again, you are one local member of a commission that will come up with recommendations?

RIVERA: I've served on this committee, and I think Ithaca is going to be an enviable example of a lot of communities. I mean, their recommendations are on point. The council supported it, and it happened, right? My job is to return to the homeless encampments, in particular, to the vulnerable and at-risk group and continue to serve them. The pandemic is still upon us. My responsibility at this time is to try to get people vaccinated.

My philosophy is this, and it might sound funny coming from a person who murdered somebody, and it's that everybody's worth being treated with dignity and respect. There are no disposable human beings. There are no throwaway human beings. And I do that. I see the value in everyone. I hope I see the value in everyone. And I treat everyone in a way that I hope would encourage them to experience being human in its fullest sense. And that's just my philosophy.

SIMON: Richard Rivera is a member of the Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative of Ithaca and Tompkins County, N.Y. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

RIVERA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.