TRIBUTE: It wasn’t until a week and a half before 9/11 that the federal government created the first national medal honoring local public safety officers — all because of a conversation at a Westwood watering hole between a borough policeman and a brother-in-arms from Washington, D.C. over pints of Guinness.
“The amazing thing is: Most law enforcement agencies don’t even know about this,” Jeffrey Muller told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “Try a search. No stories have been written about it.”
Westwood Police Officer Scott McNiff had invited his friend Muller out to Finnegan’s for brews and BS one fall night in 1997 when they got to talking about doing something special for fellow police officers.
When he patrolled Washington, D.C., Muller said, he was surrounded by monuments, award ceremonies and other types of recognition essentially for the military.
“There was nothing for the law enforcement community on that same level,” the U.S. Marine veteran, now with Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “I thought: Why not? Let’s get police officers recognition.”
Muller, who has family in and around Bergen County, has already been honored by President Clinton for jumping into the icy Anacostia River to save a 79-year-old woman trapped in a sinking car.
McNiff attended the Department of the Interior Medal of Honor ceremony.
“If this medal of valor was going to be a national award, we needed national support,” Muller said. “So we went to work on a game plan.”
“We grabbed a couple more Guinness, some bar napkins and made notes,” McNiff said.
The next day, they began approaching the more influential people they knew in the local PBAs.
After returning to D.C., Muller launched a massive letter-writing campaign — to unions, law enforcement benevolent organizations and others.
“I pretty much got the same reaction from most people: ‘You mean this doesn’t already exist?’ ” he said.
The national Fraternal Order of Police stepped up with funding. The National Association of Police Organizations, the National Troopers Coalition, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association all pledged support.
Within a few months, Muller was taking private meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He worked with the U.S. Park Police at night while attending the subsequent hearings during the day.
“I figured if we were going to do this, why not shoot for the stars?” he said.
Then came a sobering civics lesson.
Things looked promising when then-Vice President Al Gore had Muller stand and be recognized while touting the need for a medal of valor during a May 1998 speech at the National Law Enforcement Police Memorial in the nation’s capital.
The resulting bill died in Congress, however.
“These no-brainer bills — people expect them to sail through, so they add their two cents or try to get what they can,” Muller said. “They basically hijack your bill. It’s very frustrating.”
Hopes rekindled when the next session of Congress picked it up. But that measure went sideways, as well.
Then, as he was leaving office, President Clinton issued an executive order creating an award. It fell short of what Muller and McNiff had hoped, however.
Not long after, Congress once again took up the measure. It went to a vote and passed.
Muller was a bit disappointed that President Bush unceremoniously signed the bill into law on Sept. 1, 2001 — no extra pens, VIP onlookers or media. But no matter.
Federal agencies had long awarded medals to their own law enforcement officers and military service men and women — the most famous, of course, being the Medal of Honor. There’s also the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal. Civilians have been recognized, as well.
But never before did the United States bestow national recognition on local public safety officers for heroism and bravery.
The Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor recognizes “actions above and beyond the call of duty; and exhibiting exceptional courage, extraordinary decisiveness and presence of mind; or an unusual swiftness of action, regardless of his or her personal safety, in an attempt to save or protect human life” by police, firefighters, corrections officers and EMS personnel.
Recipients are chosen by a review board within the U.S. Justice Department comprised of members with public safety experience and expertise.
In the medal’s 13-year existence, 78 have been awarded — 18 last year. Nominations for this year’s medals closed July 31.
Muller and McNiff credit one another for the legacy, born of a bond forged through public service. McNiff calls Muller “a living legend,” while Muller says his friend epitomizes selflessness and dedication to others.
Both hope to one day see a scholarship attached to the medal for the children of recipients — although they know that it, too, will entail a political battle.
For right now, Muller said, “it’s a little slice of heaven.”
“It’s amazing that it was authorized just 10 days before some of the greatest acts of bravery by public safety officers that this country had ever witnessed,” McNiff said. “Amazing and fitting.”
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