Podcast featuring Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr., Lt. Col (retired), U.S. Marine Corps; Department Chair, School of Business and
John Downey, owner, Stallion Security and Investigations, Sergeant (retired) NYPD
On this episode of In Public Safety Matters, AMU’s Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. talks to retired police Sergeant John Downey about the current perception of policing in America and his 12-year career with the NYPD. John also offers solid advice for young people thinking of going into the field of law enforcement and shares his experiences since transitioning from cop to civilian. There’s even a mention of boxing champion Mike Tyson.
Listen to the Episode:
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr. Today we’re talking with John Downey, owner of Stallion Security and Investigations. After graduating from Molloy College, John became an NYC police officer, promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 2008, then retired in 2012. The NYPD Sergeant received 28 police medals and five “Cop of the Month” awards. With all that experience, John left the force and also started his own private security firm. John, welcome. Welcome.
John Downey: Thank you, Larry. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: I appreciate you coming in and I know I did not do you justice. I’m highly impressed with some of the specialized training and teams, from narcotics, to your intel and precinct anti-terrorism training. These things, I really want to be able to get into here, and I know with our audience we have a lot of individuals who are either civilians, I still use that term from my military timeframe, civilians, I will just say general public that want to go into law enforcement. And we have some military that are leaving and want to go into law enforcement, and your experience on just what’s going on in the world today in law enforcement is going to be very valuable. And so with that, can you tell us, how did John Downey find himself in NYPD?
John Downey: When I was a kid growing up in East New York, Brooklyn, those cops back then, I always used to say they were real cops. They were guys who kept you inline if you hung out on the corner and told you to move, you moved and you didn’t disrespect them. If you did, they give you a real kick in the butt, and then you brought you home and then you got it from your parents. I looked up to some of those police officers as a kid growing up.
My mom also worked in the 75th Precinct, she was a school crossing guard back then. She used to bring me down to the precinct and I thought it was a pretty cool atmosphere to be in as a young kid at five, six, seven, eight years old, in that range. I had aspirations to try to become a professional baseball player and plan B was to be a New York City police officer. That’s the road I took. I always thought it was cool as a kid playing cops and robbers, and then it’s even more cooler when you get older and you do become a police officer, you’re getting paid to play the game that you loved when you were a kid.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Well, what we really like to talk about is how you got started and then how things transitioned, because that’s what a lot of individuals are going to be doing. They’re either the high school kid or the college kid that’s trying to get into it. Like I said, you’ve determined that this is what you were going to do, did just your makeup all along help you become successful?
John Downey: I believe growing up in East New York, Brooklyn was a key factor in me being a successful cop based on the environment that I grew up in and the neighborhood. It actually helped me communicate with people in those communities so when I was wearing that uniform it made my job easier than most other officers.
I felt comfortable with having a conversation with the people in that community, as opposed to a guy who might have lived in another part of New York, Upstate or Long Island that it was out of his realm, and out of his ordinary life. To me it was second nature. It made my job easier and then the community understood when I was speaking to them that, all right, this guy understands us and he gets it. Made our job a lot easier, especially mine.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Okay, now we could touch on it later, but I really want to get to it now. If you could speak to this generation of individuals who are looking to follow in your steps, we talk about times of change, what wisdom would you say for them right now if you could impart something within that?
John Downey: Larry, I feel like being a police officer is prestigious, respectful. You put that uniform on and you should take pride in it. The climate has changed from when I became a police officer to the present climate that’s going on, where it’s not too cop friendly in this world right now. If you have that passion and that desire and you really want to help people and try to create change and make a difference out there and try to keep the streets safe and clean, it’s a job for you.
But understand that when you do get on, don’t get the disappointment if it’s not what you expected because of the situation where you’re not respected as much as we were back 20 years ago, or even 30 years ago, when police officers they show up to a scene, they took command of the situation and they demanded respect from people and they got it. And now you come to a scene and you’re a joke to most of these people because of the situation that’s going on, and also how you’re looked at it with the politicians out in this world where it’s almost like they encourage people to disrespect law enforcement.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: With the attitude of a lot of young people, they want things faster, being in law enforcement is one of those jobs that it’s going to take experience. And you have to get in there and learn by doing and learn from those like yourself that have years of experience ahead of them. As you and I shared that I have a son that wants to come that way and he wants to get into the excitement. And that’s something that you and I talked about that that’s probably not something that you should go in seeking the excitement like that. Is that probably fair to say?
John Downey: That’s a fair assessment. I believe when I came on the job, Larry, that you wanted to be that guy who ran around and locked people up and kicked the doors down. Because there’s no other great feeling than when you’re doing a search warrant and it’s five o’clock in the morning and you’re trying to get the bad guy, the guns and the drugs and not knowing what’s on the other side of the door.
You know what you’re going into, but the greatest feeling in this world when you’re going into that situation is not knowing the unknown on the other side. That’s what makes it exciting, but it can also get your hurt or killed so you got to be very careful and that’s why you should follow the lead of experienced offices and supervisors because sometimes there could be a bad mistake out there and it can cost your life, somebody else’s life or can get yourself jammed up pretty good.
In 2003 we had an issue where we had a search warrant in Manhattan, on a building, and there were some administrative mistakes made that day and there was a life lost. We were young cops at the time, we were babies on the job, three years on the job, but sometimes the supervision is not where it should be, and maybe the inexperience of that supervisor put us in a bad situation. And you learn real fast after that, it’s a sink or swim deal, where now it’s hitting the fan and the DAs office is involved and there’s an investigation on the police department. Those are the situations that you try to avoid so not everything’s all gung-ho and excitement, but just understand when you go in with that mentality, chances are that bad things can happen.
Being a police officer, it’s your life that’s on the line, which I don’t think should be a joke to anybody, and it’s somebody else’s life that’s on the line as well. To go into that situation all the time, or have that mentality when you want to get on the job, it’s all great on TV when things are getting blown up and people are getting shot and, oh, wow, look at that, look at what happened. But when you’re actually involved in it, in this situation, and someone’s life is taken, whether you had a right to take their life or not, it’s a very sensitive situation. I believe that cops, they have a lot on their mind and when they leave their house their main goal is to get back to their family, it’s not to go out and take a life. We’re there to preserve lives and people don’t understand that. They think because when a cop is in that situation and he fires his weapon, it’s because he wanted to. No, it’s because he had to. People don’t understand that, Larry.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Well, John, I really appreciate that. I know you’re very proud of your service, is that in some way incentivizing your children to come your way, and how do you feel about that if even if they are?
John Downey: To be honest with you, I’d rather not have my children be police officers, maybe 15, 20 years ago, I would say yes. If my child wanted to become a police officer, my recommendation would be probably work for the FBI, the CIA where you can use your education to advance more. Not that you can’t in the NYPD, but you can, you could take tests and become Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain. I just feel like you’re respected more when you’re wearing that suit and tie and people have more class for you as opposed to someone that’s in the uniform. And to be honest with you, I wouldn’t want my child out there to be treated the way some of these cops are being treated today.
You always want your kids to follow what you did or I tell my kids, “Be better than your father,” especially even coaching, I tell them, “Be a better player than I was, be more successful, make more money than me, have a bigger house than we have, have a better job.” I feel like they can do that and if they do that, it’ll be the FBI or the CIA or something like that, or Homeland Security. I think that’s a lot more better than being a New York City police officer. Even though I did have a great time and it is one of the best jobs in the world and everybody thinks, or believes the NYPD is the best police department in the world. I truly believe that, even today with the environment, but I still believe that you’re more respected if you’re an FBI agent or CIA or something like that.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: How did your private firm come to be? You were NYPD at one point and now you are a successful business owner. How does that transition happen?
John Downey: In 2012, when I retired from the police department, I was 33 years old, I came on a job at 21 and I said, man, what am I going to do with myself? I was looking to go into a pizzeria. A friend of mine had a pizzeria and he turns around, we had a conversation, he says to me, “John, what do you know best?” I said, “Sports and being a cop.” He goes to me, “Why don’t you go do something that you love the most, that you’re most successful in because then you become great at it. Over here, you’re foreign to this.” And I said, “Well, Mario, I’m not afraid of failure. I think to be successful in life you have to learn how to fail first, that’s how you become great. Because it makes you work harder and understand that you don’t want that feeling anymore of failing.” He says, “Just trust me and take my advice, go be successful at what you love doing.” I said, “Okay.”
I sat down and I said, all right so I had a few months where I didn’t do anything and I sat and just relaxed and did stuff around the house and enjoyed being home. A friend of mine reached out to me while I was coaching his son and he says, “I got a sports talk show.” I said, “Oh wow, that’s great.” It was called Crowd Goes Wild, and he goes, “Regis Philbin is the big host on the show.” He goes, “He needs security to get him in and out of the car and stuff like that and make sure he’s escorted to the studio.”
I went down and I loved it the first day and me and Regis hit it off, and after that decided to do four days a week with him. Other athletes came on the show, Mike Tyson and Nick Mangle, Jason Kidd, so we did some security for those guys as well. And that was very interesting because you get to see the real person on the side, that they’re not in front of a microphone and a TV screen. You get to have a real conversation. Mike Tyson was the guy who grew up in Brownsville, which is the next neighboring area of where I grew up in East New York in Cypress Hills. We hit it off and we had a good conversation, and that all goes back to what I said earlier, where I understand Mike from living in that neighborhood, and he understood me. That’s not something that you can explain to people, but you have to actually be in it to understand it. You know what I’m saying? It was good to have that conversation.
And that’s what made me say, this is something I could probably do for a while, and I like doing this. I got a job doing investigative work with LMGI with John Boehner and Greg Gollan, and they took me under their wing to understand that part of the business. And it’s like where you had to separate yourself from being a cop where if you’re doing surveillance as a police officer you’re also making an arrest. When you’re doing investigative work for insurance fraud cases, or worker’s comp, you’re not making an arrest, you’re doing an observation and that’s it. That was the hardest part for me, Larry, you can’t get out of the car and you can’t lock this person up because you know they’re committing the crime, but you’re working and they’re supposed to be collecting workers comp staying home.
That was the hardest part for me, but I adapted because under their tutelage, “John, you’re not a cop no more, you’re just a guy who’s just following somebody around and just observing and taking some video and photos and that’s that.” Then after that, after a few years of doing that, me and my wife had a conversation, she says, “You’re very good at this, why don’t you just do your own thing, make more money that way. Keep working with these guys, but just do your own things,” and then after that I started doing that and I worked with a couple of law firms and got successful. This business is all word of mouth, you screw up once you’re going to have a bad rep out there. If you do great, everybody’s going to want you. It’s like in the police department, your old saying is “You’re as good as your last arrest,” and the baseball field, “You’re as good as your last hit.”
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Guys that you’ve served with, maybe stayed on the force and now they’re getting ready to come out, or someone somewhere else in the country and they’ve been in law enforcement, this is all they’ve known. And they are faced with what you were faced with at that time. Again, now giving you that opportunity to be that wise person that as Mario may have done for you, what would you turn around and say to someone who’s got experience like you, now they’re trying to get out and what’s life after the police department?
John Downey: That’s a very interesting topic there, Larry, because most police officers, when they get to that 19- or 20-year mark, they’re confused on what they want to do after they leave. Some of them want to get into security, some of them just want to just be left alone and drive a school bus. And there’s nothing wrong with either one of those things, or any one of those choices. And some of them decide to stay on because they’re actually afraid to go out and do something different because this is all they’ve known for the last 20 years and they’re accustomed to it and they don’t know what to expect on the outside. My advice to them is let it happen, trust your instinct and your gut and believe in yourself. Because if you did 20 years, especially in the New York City Police Department, you could work anywhere because you deal with a lot of stuff out there that most people don’t even deal with in a lifetime. 20 years on that job does feel like a lifetime.
I would tell them, also understand the fact that in the corporate world it’s “hurry up and wait,” worse than the police department. And if you make a mistake, you’re gone that day, in the police department you maybe take a rip for it, get a command discipline, go to the administrative room and stuff like that, and take a penalty. As opposed to where, if you’re late 10 minutes in the corporate world they’re going to tell you to go home. And that’s also a tough transition because if you’re late in the police department, you’re allowed 15 minutes of wash up time in the beginning and the end.
Also, if you’re an active guy and you’re a captain where he likes the way you work, you get a little bit more leniency where, okay, he’s 15 minutes late, but he just took five guns off the street, give the guy a break. In the corporate world, they don’t care how many guns you took off the street and how good you look in a suit and tie or how good your smile is? It’s, “Dude, you’re late, and this is not how this works here. We have people we have to protect here and you got to do your job.” Stuff like that and you can’t call out last minute. In the police department you have that luxury because you have comp time and sick time and stuff like that.
In the corporate world, it’s a very tough transition. And if you’re not doing the job the way they want, the next guy up, the next company up, they get rid of you, they move on. It’s a good field to get into, especially now because everybody needs security now. You meet a lot of nice people, a lot of different people, different kinds of people, especially when you’re doing stuff for athletes and politicians and you get to have conversations and understand their world and how their life works, which I find is very fascinating, because I always want to know, how does it feel to be an athlete? How does it feel to be a politician, or a store owner and you have a multimillion dollar business and stuff like that? How does it feel to have that big $2 million home? You know what I mean? And I’m outside securing it for you because you’re not here to do so.
That’s the angle I would go with and I’d say, “Listen, you’re going to be okay, you’re going to be fine. Take some time to yourself though, when you do leave, because you have to hit the reset button and mentally you need to clear your mind and exhaust yourself because you have a lot of stress on you in those 20 years.” I believe taking six months to maybe a year off and just hanging around doing nothing and just being a dad, being a husband, just being a regular person. It’s almost like when you leave the military, you got to transition to civilian life. It’s the same thing, same mentality as a police officer. You’re not a civil servant no more, now you’re a civilian. You’re not Sergeant Downey no more, you’re John Downey.
I think that’s the best advice that I can give a fellow police officer because I know the stress that they deal with and I know the aggravation they go through every day and that’s their time for themselves. They should enjoy their first year of being off the job, go on vacations and go to the beach and hang out and hang out in your yard, and if you’re a cigar guy or drink guy, because when you’re on that job. Larry, you’re scrutinized for everything. I tell you, in 12 years, I probably had maybe three drinks being a police officer because you’re worried about getting yourself jammed up. You got to remember you’re carrying a firearm and it’s a responsibility and it’s a privilege to do so. Someone gave you that responsibility.
And then when you’re a Sergeant or a Lieutenant or captain or anybody above that rank, it’s a privilege to be a supervisor in the police department and you were the chosen one after you passed your test and went through the Academy, the training that they give you to become that rank. And now you’re responsible for 35 other people that have firearms and they’re making decisions out in the street and you’re the guy who’s in charge of them while they’re making these decisions. You got to hope that your knowledge of what you speak about with them in roll calls and before you send them patrol, “Watch for this and take care of that and make sure that you’re doing your job out there, and if you’re not there’s consequences and I’m going to get hung up in the middle of that because I am your supervisor.”
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: I appreciate those words of wisdom. Now we’ve talked to the young people that want to get into it, we’ve talked to the veterans that had served with alongside of you and they’re looking for life after. Now, let’s just talk to those that will hire. What does the job force, somebody in HR, what are they getting when they get a retired police officer or someone who’s trying to start a business or start a contract? What do we get?
John Downey: You’re going to get a professional, you’re going to get someone who cares, who understands what your needs are and your wants. You’re going to get a person who has experience that probably most people will never have in their life. Because, I always say, and most cops always say that the greatest show on earth is being a New York City police officer. You got front row tickets to the greatest show on earth, especially in New York City. You’re part of something bigger than yourself and bigger than most people. It’s a culture that it’s very hard to explain if you’re on the inside, you can’t explain it, and if you’re on the outside you’re not going to understand it unless you’re part of it.
When someone hires me, they say, “Why should I hire you as opposed to the other guy?” And my saying would be, “You’re getting a New York City police officer.” And that in itself is the best definition you could describe yourself, because you have the best training, well prepared for the regular world and for when you’re on the job. And if you can get to being that, you’re going to be very successful when you leave the job.
When I tell people when they hire me, this is what you’re getting, it’s the best trained cops in the world. It’s hands down, it’s the way I feel and not because I’m part of it, it’s because I understand and I lived through and I worked through it. And the training they give you, they always got to be one up on everybody. There’s training that we do that the FBI guys came and just on car stops and they were, “Oh wow, you do that? That’s amazing, we didn’t even think to do that,” and they use that in their training now.
There’s some other topics that you can go over, especially the mental health with the police officers. A lot of people should take a step back before they attack a cop, understand where he’s coming from. Listen, I understand that it was their choice to be a cop because no one tells you have to be one, so it’s your choice to do so. But when someone made that the choice to protect you and serve you should appreciate them a little more. You don’t know what’s going on in their personal life. Because cops, everybody sees them as just guys wearing uniform and they’re robots and they shouldn’t let anything bother them, but meanwhile, we’re human beings like everybody else.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: A lot of times we’re quick to give a lot of emphasis to the PTSD of a veteran, but I think as you just alluded to, there’s a lot of other mental stress and things that go on with someone who’s served in law enforcement that doesn’t get the same attention. Is that something that you see, is there a larger movement coming on now to address that, or do they have enough resources out there? Just like they talk about veterans in the service, is that something that we’re in need of more for police officers?
John Downey: I think they definitely could do more for the police officers. I don’t think they do enough. The internal stuff is probably a lot more stressful than dealing with the outside communities. When you screw up, I feel like sometimes they go overboard with the punishment. And I understand you got to be held accountable for your actions out in the street, but sometimes there are guys who are a little weaker than others and can’t take the constant being followed maybe by Internal Affairs or the stress of losing 30 vacation days. And then they have their family stress going on and their wife’s giving them a hard time or their kids.
I think sometimes I think that it’s a little excessive when they do hold you accountable. I think the punishment is a little too high because people are human, they make mistakes. And the people that are giving out the punishment are most likely guys who didn’t spend too much time on the street, or did nothing when they were on the street, and they don’t understand sometimes good intentions doesn’t mean you should be punished for that. Sometimes you have a good intention to go do something out on the field as a cop and sometimes it doesn’t go the way the patrol guide says it should go. Right away, they want to attack you and bury you and transfer you and take your gun and your shield away or stick you somewhere watching cameras and stuff like that, and not realize that that’s just pushing the guy to a different level, a different environment. Especially if they get weak minded over it and feel like they’re getting fired over it or they’re going to get locked up over something so they’re getting more stressed out.
I think in the last few years there’s had to be at least 15 police officers that took their lives, just in our department alone. Was the help non-existent where they were too busy, worried about making the guy miserable and punishing him instead of taking a step back and say, okay, is this really a big deal? No, it’s not. Let’s go in this direction instead of going full force.
And listen, there are certain situations where cops are reckless and they deserve to get punished, and there’s situations where if you committed a crime as a police officer, you deserve whatever the situation turns out to be. But there are other guys that, like I said, good intentions sometimes doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. And I think everything is a big deal because I think the pressure of the outside of the police department that they feel like they have to succumb to punishing people and firing people and having them locked up. In reality it’s really not that big a deal.
I think they can do more with helping police officers to prevent that. They should have a conversation, hey, how you doing today? When I was a Sergeant, “Hey guys, how you feeling today? My door’s open, you want to come speak to me, maybe have a personal issue.” And then sometimes, like I said, having that experience in the street, being a kid growing up, you understand people a lot more and different than most people, where if I see something off with somebody I’m going to have that conversation and I’m going to walk over to that cop, “Hey, let’s go talk for a few minutes. You’re a little off today, I can see it. You don’t seem yourself, everything okay?” And then they might open up to you and they might have a conversation. And if they do, then you try to help them out as much as you can.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: I appreciate that. John, I really appreciate you sharing everything with us today and that’ll do it for us here. And I appreciate everyone taking time to listen to us and John, where can they find out a little bit more about you and anything that they want to find about something about your services, they want to get to talk to you.
John Downey: They can shoot me an email, it’s on my website. My phone number’s on there as well. Instagram, Facebook, it’s just Stallion Investigations. You just Google it as well and everything will pop up. And if anybody has a question, even just not regards to hire me, you have a child that like you said, you want to become a police officer. I can have a conversation with them and give them the real deal on it. Not sugarcoat anything and say, this is what’s going to happen out there, and this is what you’re going to encounter. I don’t have a problem having that conversation with people. Larry, when you have a family, you understand how to interact with people more as well, I think. Because you’re checking in with your kids all the time, “Hey, how’s school, how’s your friends going, how’s the baseball team going at school, how’s life? Are you okay, are you studying okay?” You understand when you get to that precinct, you ask those same questions and you treat them like they’re your family as well.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Absolutely. All right. Well, thank you.
John Downey: Thank you, Larry, I appreciate you bringing me on and anytime you want me to come on again, I have no problem. And if you want me to speak to your own son about it, I’m good to go.
Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: I appreciate that. I will. We’ve been talking with John Downey on security, policing and life after law enforcement. It’s been a great conversation. Be safe, be well.