It was on a routine patrol in 1986 that Steven McDonald’s life took a dramatic turn. McDonald, who was just two years into his service with the New York Police Department, and his partner confronted a trio of boys in Central Park. Within seconds, one of those teens drew a handgun and shot McDonald three times.
That shooting left him paralyzed from the neck down. Yet his life was arguably shaped as much by those three bullets as by the three words he famously expressed afterward: “I forgive him.”
McDonald died Tuesday at the age of 59, after being hospitalized Friday for a heart attack. In the more than three decades after his paralysis, McDonald took on the stature of a larger-than-life symbol of forgiveness — a police officer whose sacrifice was heralded by generations of mayors and institutions in New York City.
“No one could have predicted that Steven would touch so many people, in New York and around the world,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement. “Like so many cops, Steven joined the N.Y.P.D. to make a difference in people’s lives. And he accomplished that every day.”
Perhaps never more so than on the day his son, Conor, was baptized in 1987, roughly nine months after the shooting. In a letter read to the media by his wife, Patricia, McDonald wrote of his anger toward his shooter — and his hope for healing.
“I’m sometimes angry at the teen-age boy who shot me,” she read, according to The New York Times. “But more often I feel sorry for him. I only hope that he can turn his life into helping and not hurting people. I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.”
In the years that followed, McDonald opened and carried on a correspondence with the teen who shot him, Shavod Jones, who served 8 1/2 years in prison for attempted murder.
The correspondence ended after McDonald “turned down a request from Mr. Jones’s family to seek parole,” according to the Times, saying “he was not knowledgeable or capable enough to intervene.”
Jones died just days after his release from prison in 1995, from injuries sustained as a passenger during a motorcycle accident.
McDonald went on to become something of an ambassador for the NYPD and for his Catholic faith. He met with Pope John Paul II, spoke to New York City classrooms, co-wrote a book on his recovery, campaigned for gun control and against stem cell research, even had an award named in his honor by the New York Rangers.
The Rangers remembered him in a video tribute Tuesday night.
He is survived by his wife and longtime caregiver, Patricia, and his son, Conor, who was an infant when McDonald’s famous statement was delivered. Conor McDonald was recently promoted to the rank of detective in the NYPD.