'We're all in this together': How an officer's message of unity went viral during the darkest days of civil unrest
LASD officers Brian Hill and Garrett Rifkin were exhausted after working for hours; a photo of the two went viral for reasons beyond their chosen profession
This year has been especially difficult for everyone. The impact of COVID-19 changed lives throughout the world overnight.
Frontline workers, such as police officers, firefighters, EMS providers and hospital employees, bore the brunt of the initial and ongoing impact.
Months after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States, law enforcement specifically faced another career-changing event.
On May 26, 2020, protests began in Minneapolis, Minnesota the day after the death of George Floyd in police custody. Civil unrest quickly spread throughout the nation in response to Floyd’s death. While some protests remained peaceful, others turned violent, including one where thousands of people gathered in the Fairfax District in Los Angeles.
From protest to riot
On May 30, 2020, Sgt. Brian Hill, a 36-year veteran with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) and one of the original members of the department's Sheriff Response Team (SRT), spent his 59th birthday ensuring the safety of his fellow officers, as well as nearby residents and business owners, during the protest in the Fairfax District.
"There were some peaceful protestors out there, but there were a lot of rioters and agitators," Hill said. "There were people pulling up with van loads of rocks and bricks."
Rioters, he said, were also throwing industrial-type fireworks at officers. "Most of us had our hearing damaged that day. I had headaches and problems with my hearing for about two or three weeks after that."
Hill, who had an overwatch position up on a nearby building, saw multiple suspects in an area bringing up more munitions and rocks and setting fires. At one point, he witnessed something even more harrowing.
"I actually saw some guys attempt to throw a Molotov cocktail down on my team on the ground," he recalled. "I was able to shout out, 'Hey!' at the suspects. I didn't have time to get on the radio, because it took me a second to realize the guy had a Molotov cocktail."
Hill's first inclination, he said, was to protect his fellow officers. "So, I brought my rifle up, shout, gave commands, and thank God, they heeded those commands. Unfortunately, they escaped, but I was able to stop them from throwing down a Molotov cocktail on our team, which would have been fatal."
Rioters, he said, were battering, assaulting and committing felonies against members of the LASD and LAPD. They were also destroying local businesses, setting many of the buildings on fire.
"At this time, the country had been shut down for about three months and to see these businesses that were just opening back up destroyed and burned – it was terrible," Hill said.
Hill found one business owner in tears. "This guy, who owned an athletic shoe store, had just opened back up. He had just picked his employees back up and they had been out all this time. He lost everything. That's who we were there for – to try and save all those people, those businesses."
At this point, Hill had been standing and keeping guard for about six hours. His left knee, which still has a 9mm round in it from a training accident last December, was hurting.
He decided to take a quick break on the bumper of a police vehicle next to another longtime colleague and friend – LASD Deputy Garrett Rifkin. They both sat down, grabbed something to eat and drink – and, like brothers, poked friendly jabs at each other.
A quick photo was taken of the two – with Hill sitting down to rest his knee and Rifkin with his pant leg rolled up so his prosthesis could air out. Unbeknownst to Hill and Rifkin, that photo would soon go viral.
A life-changing hit-and-run
Rifkin, now 27 years old, has been with the LASD since he was 20. His dad had been with the department for 34 years, and his brother is an officer with the LAPD.
Becoming a police officer, Rifkin said, was all he could ever see himself doing.
"The day I got the acceptance from the academy, I never looked back," he said.
His life, however, changed drastically on August 3, 2018.
At the time, Rifkin was working a traffic suppression team and was checking a street on his way in to work. As he was turning westbound on his motorcycle, another driver going northbound broadsided Rifkin in the middle of an intersection.
Rifkin saw the car coming but didn't have enough time to prevent the collision. He was able to swerve, causing him to take most of the impact on his side rather than going head-on into the car.
"I remember flying through the air, hitting the ground and lying in the middle of the street. There were still cars coming because it's a busier intersection," he said. "I crawled my way into the gutter, put myself into the recovery position and waited for paramedics to get there."
He was in excruciating pain but refused to look at his leg – unable to bring himself to determine if it was missing or not.
"I refused to look down because I knew the second I did, I would pass out and I still had the issue of being in the street," he said. "I did what I needed to do – I got out of the street and got myself to a safe spot."
Once paramedics arrived on scene, Rifkin repeatedly asked if he was going to lose his leg or not. "The paramedic asked me if I wanted him to be honest. I told him, 'Give it to me straight.' He told me they were going to try to do what they can to preserve it, but it didn't look too good. My foot was pretty much split in half."
Rifkin underwent six surgeries to try to save his leg, but on August 21, after his sixth surgery, his doctor came to him with two options.
"He said, 'There are two options. It's going to be about 20 more surgeries trying to save it, there's going to be skin grafts and muscle grafts. We'll pull from your lats, forearms and triceps. You'll never run again, you'll walk with a limp for the rest of your life and it's most likely going to hurt every time you take a step. You'll never work again.'"
The other option was amputation: "He said, 'Or you can amputate and try to get back to your normal life.'"
Rifkin made his decision quickly and decisively – to amputate his left leg below the knee on August 22. "I haven't looked back since," he said. "I genuinely believe I made the right choice. The worst thing that I have now is phantom pains and that's bearable."
Rifkin had one goal: to return to work by November. Thanks to countless hours of rehab and physical therapy, he accomplished that goal. Three months after the hit-and-run, Rifkin was back at work working dispatch on November 7. In December, he was back in a patrol car.
"Everybody under the sun told me I couldn't. I was determined to come back. There was nothing that was going to stop me," he said.
The support Rifkin received from his family and fellow officers, including Hill, was unwavering. "We're 10,000 sworn, but that 10,000 sworn gets really, really tight, really quick," he said.
That brotherhood bond, Rifkin said, has always been evident any time he and Hill have worked together over the years. But it goes even further, as Hill used to work patrol with Rifkin's father.
'It doesn't matter the color of your skin'
"When that picture was taken, we were laughing not only because the story of us being broken, but he was laughing because he worked the '92 riots with my dad, and now he's working the 2020 ones with me," Rifkin said.
This year's protests and riots, according to Hill, have proven more difficult than when he held the line in 1992.
"The weekly protests and riots … it's just sad. Being Black, American and in a position of authority, I'm wearing two hats. I try to see things from every side and every side is difficult," Hill said.
The two have worked together at least once a month for the last seven years – ever since Rifkin joined the SRT team. And, when the two just saw the photo as a portrayal of "broken and beat-up friends," many others, including Rifkin's wife, saw something much more different.
"She said, 'In a world where everyone thinks cops are racist, you two have always worked together, no matter what, because you don't see the color of someone's skin.' It dawned on me right then. I never saw him as Black and me as white. I saw him as my partner and friend. A guy who I could turn to when I needed help or didn't know an answer," Rifkin said in the now-viral Facebook post.
When thinking of Hill, Rifkin said he doesn't think of how they're different. "I think of my friend; I think of having a good time, laughing, being immensely sore on some of these deployments. He's not only a good leader, but he's a great friend."
In less than 100 days, when Hill retires, Rifkin said he, along with many other officers, will miss his presence in more ways than one. "It's truly not going to be the same. I'm going to miss him," he said.
And although they have held the line together for probably one of the last times in Hill's career, Rifkin said he hopes the photo continues to shed light on what's really important – looking beyond the color of someone's skin or profession.
"It doesn't matter the color of your skin. If we could all just be decent human beings, the world would be a much better place," he said.