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NEW ORLEANS -- “No regrets,” John Passaros said simply of his decision to become a police officer.
Not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up, Passaro was lucky. He did. He knew it with nearly absolute certainty. Ever since he was a little kid, he said he was going to be a cop, telling his father numerous times. Like so many in the police business, he comes from a long line of law enforcement officers – family members and friends and had been called to serve.
“It runs in the family,” he said. He was going to be no different.
Passaro served as a uniform cop in the city of New Orleans for the NOPD for 5 years, before he was critically injured – only a bulletproof vest would save his life.
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“St. Claude and Poland. 1-0-8. Officer down, officer down. Shots fired, shots fired,” says a frantic voice calling for help from that morning in 2013. Passaro was badly injured.
“I remember the entire day,” he said, only blacking out once his spine was hit by a bullet inside the store he had been called to. About every 15 minutes after that he would come to and is still able to remember those moments vividly.
“Once I was on the floor. I was telling them, ‘You gotta get me out of here.’ And they were telling me, ‘The ambulance is on the way.’”
Around 7 a.m., on Feb. 11, 2013, Passaro responded to a robbery call at the Dollar General at the intersection of Poland and St. Claude avenues. What he didn’t know is that the robbery was still in progress and the robber was still in the store when he showed up at the scene. He was about to be ambushed.
Officer Passaro entered the store, and “As soon as I identified myself,” he remembered, “he came running toward me, gun raised, shooting.”
“One hit me in the chest, which was deflected by my vest, and two more shots to the shoulder. One shot lodged in front of my right shoulder blade. The other one bounced around inside and nicked my spine and lodged in front of my right shoulder blade. I currently still have two rounds lodged inside of my body,” he said.
The doctors told him it would do more damage to remove the bullets, so they stayed.
Passaro said he was rushed to University Hospital after being shot. He spent four days under heavy sedation, when he came to “that’s when they told me I couldn’t move my legs and all of my lower extremities and I couldn’t walk,” he said. He spent months in another hospital for treatment and rehabilitation.
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The first thing you notice about Passaro is his demeanor. He has a calmness about him – a mild manner of speaking. Not overly emotional, he said he doesn’t get stressed out. He never did. He’s not a worrier, especially if it is something out of his control. Even when describing the violent encounter that took away his ability to walk, he is incredibly calm – almost matter of fact – as he recounted that day and what he remembers of it. “Even before the accident, I was the same way.”
He hasn’t been able to walk since the day he responded to the call at the Dollar General, but he isn’t full of resentment.
“My life has been changed a little bit,” he said. “You know it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything, just slowed me down. I currently do everything I did before, just in a different manner,” saying he still does most of things he loves, such as fishing and outdoor activities and he plans on hunting again this fall – a first since the shooting. He still hangs out with his fellow officers, has his cop buddies over to watch a Saints game, a barbeque or a crawfish boil.
Passaro said when he first came to at University Hospital he couldn’t move arms. Four days later, he said he began to regain the use of his arms.
“They were actually surprised with the level of injury that I had that I was even able to use my arms.” He is thankful that regained the use of his arms, knowing how more challenging life could have been and the level of independence he could have lost. He always looks at the positives.
It’s this sort of attitude that has helped him deal with the psychological side of the injuries, not getting bogged down with anger and frustration.
“I planned from day one. I didn’t get upset. I didn’t let it affect me. I knew there is nothing I can do, and it’s not going to make anything better. I had to figure out how I was going to deal with things at home. Work, things like that. I was concerned about my wife, my family,” he said.
Passaro said the support network from his family and friends and colleagues from the NOPD has made all the difference.
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“Would I go back and change anything how I handled it that day? No.”
Passaro said he walked in looking for a victim and a store manager. Instead he was met by the robber running out of the darkness and shooting.
“I couldn’t have done anything any different,” he said.
The case remains unsolved. The suspect who shot Passaro was wearing a hoodie, sunglasses and a bandanna covering his face. “There was really nothing visible,” he said.
Passaro isn’t consumed by notions of vengeance, getting the robber captured. An arrest won’t change his reality, he said, though he would like to him get caught if only to prevent another person from getting hurt.
“Would I like to see him caught? Sure. If they do or they don’t, my life has already been changed and adjusted,” he said. “What’s done is done. It can’t be changed.”
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If cops have to be one part social worker on the front lines of some streets of America, it is easy to see why Passaro’s demeanor would be perfect for the streets on New Orleans, where a calming approach can cool things down.
He said he knew the risks, even before he joined NOPD, but he still wanted to become a cop. “You know what can happen,” he said. “Not everybody can be in the police.”
Although he retired from the NOPD, Passaro said he still goes to the academy classes. “I tell them (NOPD recruits) and show them what can happen,” he said. Often he goes with another officer who also was severely injured. Their message is simple: Don’t be complacent, always be aware because situations change in the blink of an eye.
And he has a message he tells the classes: “If you are here just for a paycheck, you need to get up and leave because a paycheck doesn’t pay for what you see here,” he tells the classes, referring to his injuries. “You got be willing and knowing that is a possibility that can happen to you.”
But he loved it, loved being a cop. He said he loved that every day was different. There was no rut to get stuck in, it wasn’t repetitive or monotonous, and he liked the helping his community – he likes helping people. If anything, he said, he misses being cop. The passion for law enforcement still burns.
“If I was in this chair for five years and got back out of it…to where I could walk again,"he said, "I’d go right back to doing it.