Cover Story

The Return of the Brotherhood
Exclusive interview with BBO Founder and Leader Michael Burke

By Daniel Del Valle

The Blue Magazine recently sat down with Michael Burke, the leader of the popular law enforcement group Brothers Before Others (BBO). Burke started a Facebook group in late 2014 that grew to approximately 4,600 members of active and retired law enforcement officers. In this exclusive interview, Burke explains why it is not the sheer size of a group that matters, rather the quality of the membership. He also weighs in on his thoughts about the brotherhood and how we need to do more to help each other. Burke, a retired New York City Police Officer, is known throughout the national law enforcement scene as a tireless advocate for the profession and for the strengthening of the brotherhood. 

Del Valle: What were the years that you were on the New York City Police Department?
Burke: 1987 to 2002. I retired due to multiple line-of-duty injuries–my knee and back.

Did you play any role in 9/11?
No. I should have been working that day but I was home recovering from a surgery.

When did you hear about the attack?
My dad woke me up. He called me and told me that there was a plane that crashed into the towers. I thought it was an accident, and then I turned on the TV and like 15 minutes later the second one hit and at that moment I knew we were in trouble.

When did you start BBO?
Late 2014 when Facebook started to become popular and all these different law enforcement groups started popping up. I got invited to quite a few, but I settled in with LEO Only. I was involved pretty heavily there, especially with fundraising and maybe some ideas here and there. I was doing charitable endeavors, which I’ve always done throughout my career as a cop. I had liked that part about LEO Only so I stayed and I fundraised. Eventually it came to a point where I had other ideas and it didn’t line up with what they wanted to do, so I started my own group.

So you left LEO Only and started Brothers Before Others?
Correct. But the idea of Brothers Before Others really happened when I was still with LEO Only. The idea for the flower fund, which is basically what BBO was built on. The flower fund and sending flowers to every line-of-duty death was one of the things I wanted to do that they weren’t prepared to do at that point because they didn’t feel like they could raise enough money to do it. It is very expensive. In our four years of existence we spent $155,000 to $160,000 on flowers. I understand why they had hesitation about wanting to do that but it was something I wanted to try. It’s not like there was malice or they didn’t want to help or do it for line-of-duty officers, I just think they didn’t feel like they had the structure to do it, and I’m more of a swing-for-the-fences kind of guy. Their leader was more like a reserved straightforward kind of by the books kind of guy. So we just didn’t see eye to eye.

What else made you want to start BBO?
I wanted to try to implement the things I wanted to do, when I wasn’t able to do them there. So I felt like I need to do my own thing and you know like police groups and any other groups on Facebook there were people from LEO Only that came to BBO and there are people that stayed with LEO Only. There are people that actually picked sides as if that needed to happen, which it did not. However, I’m glad to say that four years later both charities are flourishing and they are doing great things. LEO Only does shopping sprees for line-of-duty officer’s children, when those officers are killed they take those kids out and give them a Christmas and they send officers there to go with them. So, they’re kind of replacing or trying to fill in for that as a father or mother figure for that small time over the holidays and they still do that to this day.

Very good.
We do the flower fund and we have other things that we do as well that I feel like if I would have stayed there I never would have done. Sometimes when you’re constricted and have a lot of roadblocks, it forces you to look to other avenues or other ways to get stuff done. And those roadblocks for me were usually what kept me going–the challenges to try to find ways around them. I didn’t have that there.

How many members are there today?
I believe we’re at 4600, roughly, but we could be at 46,000 if we wanted. Some people are going to consider this arrogant, but I’m just going to say it how I feel. We are inclusive of all but we’re exclusive. So, we’re probably 25 to 1 in approvals to disapprovals. We plan on capping and closing at 5000 for a while.

Compared to other law enforcement groups I’ve seen 15, 20, 30, 40 thousand members, wouldn’t that make you look stronger or better if you have more than just 4600?
It might make us look stronger, but it will not make us stronger. I know from experience now after four years there have been times were our membership has grown let’s say 500 to 1000 but we were not capable of doing the things that we were able to do before. Because like these charities and Facebook groups, people have lives and things might change in their lives, they might not be able to give as much as they gave before which doesn’t mean they don’t need to be there anymore, it just means you need to find some more people that are like-minded and able to do that so I don’t think the numbers really matter.

Have you gotten any negative feedback on turning people down because you are turning down law enforcement officers?
Sure, absolutely. I would understand if I was them and I tried to get in and didn’t, I would probably have sour grapes and a sour taste in my mouth too. But there are certain questions that are asked like do you believe in the brotherhood? Are you okay with putting officers first and not being ashamed of that?

Who would answer no to that? Does anyone answer no to that?
Okay, Let me give you an example, courtesy is an example, right? So I believe that most of the people and in our group cops should not be writing cops tickets. I’m not talking about letting a guy go if he did a bank robbery. I’m talking about a red light, a stop sign, you know a couple of miles over on the speed limit there’s enough negative stuff out there. Why we’re going to hurt each other? So there are two sides of that coin. The cop shouldn’t have gone through the red light. Okay he knows that, but should that mean that you have to crucify him? Or write him a summons or hurt him that way while battling against so many other things. So maybe we phrase it that way are you true blue? That’s one of the things that we mean. Would you be willing to give the brother or sister the benefit of the doubt? It doesn’t always have to be courtesy. It could be not responding to a negative story that is in the press and throw your brother or sister under the bus without giving them the benefit of the doubt. We wouldn’t like if that happened to us, we should stand for others. Because everybody is one call or one decision, one situation away from being that guy or that girl. So we want people in the group that aren’t going to wait until they are that guy or that girl and need help. We want people in the group who are waiting to help that that guy or that girl. Not everybody is willing to do that for a lot of reasons.

I want to stick on this vetting process because I know when someone reads this, they’re going to really focus on how does a member get there? Why they are not letting them in the organization? When someone fails the vetting process is there a way for him or her to make it through or they can reapply at some point?
Well, I don’t know if I want to use the word fail. Let me put it in another way. If you’re working and you’re in a slot with 15 to 20 guys and if someone calls for help on that tour, the 15 or 20 guys or girls are all going to respond to that call for help right? Now it comes to Friday and you’re off the weekend you’re going to invite those 15 or 20 guys to your house for a BBQ? Probably not, right? You’re going to invite the three or four that you’re close with that you have the same things in common with–that you gravitate toward, those are the ones you’re going to invite to your BBQ, correct? I mean that’s the approach kind of that we take with BBO.

What is the main purpose of Brothers Before Others? 

Well to start it was to do the flowers, to get the flowers out to every line-of-duty death. Once we got that going and started to get membership we started to expand a little bit. We started to do T-shirts and hats and memorial items. We go to precincts and commands not just New Jersey and New York, but we travel. We went to Virginia and a couple of other locations and go to those commands and precincts and bring hats and shirts and members to let those people know in those areas that they are not alone. And even though they don’t know us we’re all sisters and brothers and we’re here for you. And when you do that and you travel and you meet those peoples and they see what you’re doing, more like-minded people from areas that you would have never been before come out. And sometime they’re in shock when they see the shirts at the table and the hats, they look at it like are these for sale? Are these for us? They don’t really get the concept because I think the brotherhood is stronger in the northeast maybe Florida and other locations like down south or out west is not as strong and in some places non existent.

Do you make all the decisions in this organization?
Absolutely everything. I’m the Commander-in-Chief (laughs). We have a Board, there’s seven board members plus me so it’s eight of us total, and then we have eight trustees, which handle different areas of the country. We have a trustee for the Northeast, a trustee for Florida, a trustee for the southwest. These trustees handle things or issues that might arise in that area and then bring them back to the Board. The Board consists of eight which everything of substance or importance is voted on. Because if I had my way we would have a helicopter and a speedboat and all other things (laughs). It’s good to have a Board where everybody’s voice is heard and we’re diverse. We don’t always agree on everything but we always come to an agreement on what’s best for the group.

What is your biggest hurdle for BBO? Or the one thing you can improve in as an organization?
Fundraising outside of our own group, like I touched on before, if we spent $160,000 in the last four or five years on flowers, that all comes from within the group. But we have a couple of–I won’t call them donors—rather a couple of businesses we have arrangements with because they do some advertising with us on the website and stuff like that that can supplement a cost a little bit but we need to get our name out there which is why we did the website.

What has been the most touching thing that your organization has done?
Hands down, Steven McDonald.

Elaborate please.

So, I’ve became a cop in 1987 and Steven McDonald was shot in 1986 and they have what we call in NYPD, they call it rackets, which is a gathering to raise funds and show support for the officer so I was in the police academy when that happened and I bought a ticket and I was able to go for like an hour and I saw how much brotherhood there was and how everybody was helping. It was awesome. I kept that ticket for that event with me, and carried it through my whole career. It was on me every day and when I was in plain clothes, I kept it in my locker. When Brothers Before Others started, I reached out to Connor McDonald who was not even born yet, when his father was shot and put in a wheel chair. I explained to him that I started this charity and our first event, first Knights to Unite was happening in Jersey City and it would mean a lot to me if his dad could come. He did and it was like he was blessing our charity, giving our charity the okay. It was phenomenal. It really was the beginning of BBO–our first gathering and having him there went to a lot of our creditability and legitimacy to what we were doing. Because in the law enforcement world you know he is…

He’s an icon, absolutely
A living saint. And later on we (the Board and I) decided to honor Steven McDonald because he was always giving of himself and doing things for other officers. So we planned the event it was in November and then a tragedy struck in New York City, Seargent Tuozzolo was killed and the event for Steven McDonald was on the same day of his funeral. So, I reached out to the McDonald family and discussed it with them about maybe rescheduling the day and that was not going to happen because you know just like Steven McDonald persevered and went on through the years, you know the attitude of the family and me and those around us, we stayed strong–we stayed together and we moved forward. All the money that we raised that night was donated to the family. And unfortunately and sadly, only two months later Steve Mcdonald succumbed to his injuries and passed away.

Was BBO the last dinner he was honored at before he passed?
Michael: Right, and I’m proud of that. There were 375 people there, many who had never met Steven McDonald but had the chance that night and they still talk to about it this day. So, I would say that’s the most touching thing is our event for Steven McDonald.

What would you tell Steven today if you could speak with him? What would you say?
I’d say thank you… I’m not perfect, you know, none of us are, but I feel like he’s like a guiding light like a star that would shine that you look to for directions sometimes.

What message do you want to tell the law enforcement officer who is new on the job? As a leader of BBO, what would you tell them today?
Well my message would be to not just the new guys but to the old guys, the veterans. So when I became a cop and we talked about it before the first couple of years nobody talked to you. And I got it and I understood why and I waited my turn and if I didn’t see the inside of a car the first two years and that was only because someone was sick that day. When I got in that car the veteran told me don’t touch this don’t say that don’t do this, and did not say another word to me the whole eight-hour tour. I just followed him and if there was something that I needed to do I did it and I kind of looked for approval. And at the end of the tour didn’t even say goodnight to me but two or three months later a got a nod from him with a, “hey kid you’re okay.” So I would say don’t be that standoffish with the new guys, show a little interest in the new guys because if you have ten years on, you got another ten years to go so when you’re in your 17th or 18th year that guy is going to be in his 7th or 8th year and you’re going to be dependent on him. I say for the new guys to probably get involved a little more. I say for them when there is a precinct function go to it. I know it may not be your thing, going to a VFW of Knights of Columbus having a cigar, having a beer when you can be playing I don’t know what the newest video game is anymore, you know what I’m saying. I was the young guy once, now I’m the guy that’s preaching saying do this or do that but it comes from experience. I think they should get more involved and be more involved in their precincts or their commands. For the older guys, make it a little easier for them to do that, because we’re one team.

We covered a lot. Is there anything that you want to add?
Yes. When we’re saying thank you and stuff like that it’s important that the family of the fallen officers know we are honoring them also. And I want to say thank you to our significant others or better halves and I think everybody should do that more.

Brothers Before Others – Letters
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t talk about BBO. Having the opportunity to work with this group and meeting some of the amazing people I’ve met and become friends with
wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Mike Burke. He makes you want to be better at what you do, and what you’re doing with the group. Being behind the scenes and seeing how ideas start and
eventually come to life, it’s an amazing thing. His vision and creativity with how we try to set ourselves apart and stand out are all from the heart and you can see that written all over
everything this group accomplishes. He’s loyal almost to a fault and will fiercely defend his cause. Anyone who is lucky enough to be a part of what this group does daily is there for a
reason. I couldn’t be more proud to call Mike a friend and Brother, to be a part of this machine, what is does and to see what it does next.

Matthew Gajewski
Union Beach Police Dept
Southern NJ Trustee BBO
———
Brothers Before Others is so much more than a charity, a social media group or even law enforcement group. BBO is family 100%. It’s that unbreakable bond of truly hardcore dedicated,
diverse, individuals who get that caring for each other, our law enforcement families and the community isn’t just a catch phrase it’s a life style. The loyalty is unquestionable and the love
(even with the constant ball busting and teasing) is ever-present.
Thanks Mike Love ya my Brother

OIC / Detective Don Huneke #17024
Broward County Sheriff’s Office
Traffic Homicide Unit
200 NW 27th Av
Ft. Lauderdale Fl. 33311
———
It’s hard to fit Mike into one small paragraph because he isn’t just the founder of BBO, he is the soul of it. He breathes, lives and sleeps (or doesn’t lol) BBO. It’s amazing how far we’ve have come from a single man’s vision and love for the blue line. When I look at Mike, only love, respect and honor flows through me. He started with only a few followers to thousands and thousands.
From just only FaceBook to the whole web. From one shared post to hundreds of reports all over social media and news casts. Mike it’s an honor, pleasure and truly humbling to be a part of your vision, team and family.

Bassima “SuperBass” Hajismaiel
Executive Board
Recording Secretary/Event Coordinator
Officer Bassima Hajismaiel #105
PCSO Corrections Division
Program Service Liaison
PBA 197 Treasurer
S.O.R.T.
S.E.R.T.
F.T.O.
bhajismaiel@pcsheriff.org
———
In 2014 Michael Burke had just started the group Brothers Before Others. Not knowing me, other than a name on his new Face Book Page, Mike took a chance on a cop from Washington, DC and, on the recommendation of another Brother, brought me on as a page Administrator. Since then I have pretty much had a front row seat to the growth of this amazing charity. In a time where it  seems that the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of our profession has taken a downturn, groups like BBO restore my faith in our Blue Family. The relationships that my family have made, have taken us in directions we would never have seen coming 4 years ago. This awesome charity that we have is rock solid and growing stronger every day. And none of this would have been possible without the Captain we have steering this ship. We may often laugh and refer to ourselves as a band of misfits, but what we have accomplished thus far and what we are poised to do, shows that Brothers Before Others has set the standard for Law Enforcement Charities. And we will continue to raise the bar. Well done Burke! I can’t wait to see what you pull off next!

Greg Rock
———
Michael J Burke is my Brother within a Brotherhood. Let that sink in for a moment. Most outside of uniform service will never truly understand how core this statement is. Many have friends, coworkers, or biological brothers, this transcends all of this to its base, far beyond mere words. When asked to say a few words on my Brother as the President and founder of BBO, I was immediately drawn to a quote by the late Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States: “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things“

Rob O’Donnell
———
I was invited to BBO after attending the funeral for NYPD Detective Brian Moore in May 2015. What I thought was just a “Facebook” group became something much more the next summer when my team lost Officer Jonathan “JD” DeGuzman to gunfire after an ambush. His partner, Wade Irwin, was critically injured but would full recover. I attended my first BBO event, Family Day, a month after JD’S Murder. Members of BBO, who I had never met in person, greeted me like a family member. Their genuine concern for JD’s family and Wade’s recovery
astonished me. BBO helped heal me and many others by keeping JD’S memory alive. The friendships I have made through BBO are a gift that keeps giving. I will forever be in debt to  Michael Burke and this group he created.

Ken Fortier
San Diego Police Department
———
I would like to take a moment to thank Mike Burke for constantly driving forward to progress this group called “Brothers Before Others.” What started out as a “Facebook group,” has grown into a nationwide charity that is present in every State. It’s a bonus that BBO is full of like-minded cops which makes me feel normal : ) A personal memory for me was attending the first “Walk to Remember” and holding the sign for a fallen brother from my home State of New Hampshire. That sign was taken back to N.H. and personally presented to the Arkell Family. Mike is not willing to settle for mediocrity when organizing events or selecting board/admin/trustees and the countless hours of devotion by Mike and his wife Julie do not go unnoticed and for that I am thankful.

Detective Sergeant Edward Shaughnessy
Bradford Police Department
2217 State Route 114
P.O. Box 762
Bradford, NH 03221
———
When my friend added me to be Brothers Before Others, my initial reaction was, “Great! ANOTHER law enforcement group.” I almost immediately dismiss the idea of getting involved. But I’m so happy that I didn’t. BBO is nothing like other Facebook LE groups. Michael Burke has this uncanny way of drawing you into the family and making you feel like you are an important part of the bigger picture, which is the charity. It came at a time when, personally, it was what I needed. Most cops have this desire to genuinely help others. Michael has this ability of pulling people together to touch each other and our brothers / sisters, even if they aren’t a part of the FB group. I was able to add my own “expertise” in running my own business to assist BBO’s reach with social media,
the website and shipping. I’m so glad I am able to contribute to Mike’s vision and assist in pushing forward BBO to levels I am not sure Mike knew it could go! #BBONation Thank you for supporting Brothers Before Others and have a great day.

Brenda Gonzalez
Social Media and Public Relations Officer, Webmaster for BBO
www.brothersbeforeothers.org
———
With the things that Brothers Before Others has accomplished since 2014, limiting this to one paragraph is tough. On a personal level, this group has showed me what the fraternity of law enforcement should be: benevolence without politics. Over the years, I’ve often referenced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success. In this case, the last line rings truest: “…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded” Through his vision and sheer will, Michael Burke, using Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition as the standard, has made BBO one of the most successful support systems this profession has seen; and for showing me that something like that is possible and sustainable, I am eternally grateful.

Joshua Oliveri
———
Mike You are amazing, the only guy that sees an idea and makes it happen in record time. You guy our group through so many different events. It makes me proud to be part of such an amazing group. Just like when I offered my Santa suit a few years ago. You helped organize and raise thousands of dollars for sick children during the holidays. Placing smiles on the most defenseless humans is an amazing achievement. Thank You Michael Burke for your dedication.

Lenny Caputo
———
A few short years ago Michael Burke started this group of bluer than blue individuals to honor our fallen. Little did he know it would evolve into a mission to not only do this but far more. From driving to Cleveland to honor the family of a victim savagely murdered, to stopping along the way to contribute to a community baby shower for battered women. He has steered this vessel to help not only our own in need, but to extend our efforts to those in the communities we serve. I’m proud to be part of this group, and honored to be part of this mission.

joshua@brothersbeforeothers.org
———
I first met Mike (and Josh) in 2014 at the “Dump Finale” rally – and ever since then I’ve been questioning my sanity for joining up with him (just kidding). At that time I had reached the point in my career where it had become just a “job”- I showed up, did my shift and collected my check. From that day on he’s helped me remember what it truly means to be a “cop”. He has reconnected me with my blue family and thru my involvement with Brothers Before Others has renewed the feeling of pride in our profession that I felt when I first put on a uniform. And for that I can never say Thank You enough.

D/Sgt Edward P Conlon Jr
Cedar Grove Police Department
525 Pompton Ave
Cedar Grove NJ