From Killer to Police Reform: Police Chief Speaks Out Against Convicted Cop Killer
ITHACA, N.Y.(WENY)-- As Ithaca’s Police Reform Proposal enters its final stages of voting, controversy has broken out over convicted felon Richard Rivera. Rivera shot and killed an off-duty police officer in 1981 and is now involved in Ithaca’s Police Reform Proposals data gathering process.
Rivera was charged with 25 years to life after shooting and killing Robert Walsh in an attempt to rob a bar in Queens, New York. After serving 39 years in prison, Rivera was released just over a year ago, he now lives in Tompkins County and has dedicated his life to helping the disenfranchised and homeless community members to find their way.
“I work for two nonprofits and these two nonprofits have dedicated themselves to sustaining the homeless population by providing them with the things they need,” said Rivera.
Rivera grew up with a stepfather that was addicted to heroin, a mother that struggled with mental health issues and multiple siblings that he was forced to take care of at a young age.
“ There were nine of us living in the house and we were really, really poor,” said Rivera. “ So poor that by the age of seven or eight I was out in the street begging for money to try to help feed my family because my stepfather would take all the money to feed his addiction.”
At eight years old Rivera had dropped out of school and it was not until he went to prison that he was able to obtain his GED.
“[When I killed Robert Walsh] I was sixteen years old, I was addicted to cocaine and by that time I had been running in the streets for like nine years,” said Rivera.
Rivera was on a dark path, he had been robbing and begging for money to keep the lights on for his brothers and sisters at home, but on January 12th of 1981, Rivera's life changed.
“ We started driving around to identify a place to rob and around 12 or a little after midnight we settled on this bar and grill,” said Rivera.
Rivera was with two friends, all three of them were intoxicated from smoking weed, snorting cocaine and drinking alcohol. When he showed up to rob the bar, as he describes it, one friend went to the back, one went to the middle and Rivera stood at the front of the bar. With their faces covered in pantyhose, Rivera announces the robbery and then things made a change for the worst.
“ Someone put a gun in my face, I had a gun in my hand, I shot two shots and ran,” said Rivera.
It wasn’t until later that Rivera found out that the person he shot and killed, was New York Police Officer Robert Walsh. Walsh was off duty, having a drink at the bar when he was gunned down by Rivera. Four days after the shooting and failed robbery, Rivera was sentenced to 25 years to life.
For Rivera, the prison was the best thing that could have happened to him. When he was arrested he could not read nor write, he had an IQ of 78 and after spending almost 39 years in prison he had obtained a master's degree and he was working on obtaining another degree from Bard College.
During Rivera’s 39 year sentence, he was denied parole seven times. But eventually, he was able to get out, because he challenged denying parole to individuals who had committed crimes as juveniles and were adjudicated as adults.
“ When I went to prison I did not only not know how to read or write, I had no identity, I didn't know who I was as a person,” said Rivera. “ It was during my incarceration, through reflection, through experience and encounters with other individuals that I developed my personality, my identity and decided what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with my life.”
Rivera said he reached a point in prison where he had to either deny the fact that he was a murderer or accept that, move past it and move forward.
“ I had decided to accept it, acknowledge what I did, recognize that it was a horrible and agonizing thing and that I want to live my life in a way that makes a difference; that contributes something back to the world that I took away,” said Rivera.
Rivera is now well known throughout Tompkins County for the outreach work he does. Because of the close connections he has with struggling community members, he was asked to be involved in the data gathering process for Ithaca’s Police Reform Proposal.
“ The idea of this proposal was to go out there and capture the voices of individuals who are most directly impacted by unfair police practices, and my job because of my relations with this community was to capture those voices,” said Rivera.
Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor, believes that the work Rivera is doing in the community is good and he believes that everyone deserves a second chance at life, but he does not believe that Rivera should be part of any police reform.
“To find out after all of these meetings and groups that a person murdered a police officer and is now forming opinions on shaping policing, it does not add up and I'll just say it does not sit well and I have had a lot of my colleagues reach out to me in complete and utter disbelief and that's the only way to describe it,” said Nayor.
Chief Nayor knew Rivera was involved but he had no idea about his dark past.
“ I knew that Richard Rivera was in some of these focus groups and was involved but I had no idea of his background until I just saw the New York Post article that was forwarded to me,” said Nayor. “ Had no idea that somebody who murdered a New York City Police Officer is part of what's been reforming policing here locally,” said Nayor.
Chief Nayor is the son of a retired NYPD officer and when he heard about this story, it hit close to home for him.
“ I grew up as a child with my dad being NYPD and the police officer that was murdered by Mr. Rivera left four children and that could have easily been me,” said Nayor.
Chief Nayor believes that it was important to include all of the voices of disenfranchised community members and he was happy to hear what they had to say until he found out that the person collecting the data was a cop killer.
“ I think there are many other people that could have provided that information and not someone who murdered a police officer,” said Nayor.
The Chief said he was also feeling a sense of Deja Vu because this was the second time he was finding out something about this police reform proposal, not from his mayor or his community but from outside news sources.
“For me as police chief, who is at every meeting, part of all of this, to find out from the New York Post it's disturbing,” said Nayor.
Rivera understands that the public feels he will be biased or is anti-police and he said this is understandable, considering his history. But he wants the community to know that he is not for abolishing the police or union-busting and he had very little to do with this re-imaging process. He said he was only involved to help collect data.