It was a proud moment for U.S. Customs and Border Protection when the agency gathered in Washington, D.C., at the Ronald Reagan Building on Tuesday to celebrate one of its own: Border Patrol Agent Jonathan J. Morales, who was awarded the Officer of the Year in 2019 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s largest professional association for police leaders. Agent Morales is the first law enforcement officer at CBP to receive the prestigious award.
Selected from law enforcement officers throughout the world, Agent Morales was awarded for his heroism and bravery. On April 27, 2019, Morales, a Border Patrol agent stationed at the El Centro Sector in Southern California, was off-duty and attending morning services on the last day of Passover at Chabad of Poway, a Jewish synagogue in Poway, California in San Diego County. Without warning, a man armed with an AR-15 assault rifle entered the synagogue through the front door and opened fire, first in the foyer and then in the sanctuary.
The gunman wounded three people, including the rabbi, and tragically killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye, a courageous woman who shielded the rabbi from the hail of bullets. During a pause in the shooting, after the gunman’s weapon jammed, Agent Morales made his way through the panicked congregants, risking his life, to retrieve a small revolver kept securely by the synagogue just in case the need arose to respond to this type of incident.
Once armed, Agent Morales ran toward the shooter. The gunman fled the synagogue toward a nearby vehicle parked outside. Agent Morales and another worshipper pursued him. Agent Morales engaged the shooter, hitting the shooter’s car. When he ran out of ammunition, Agent Morales continued to advance toward the gunman, who sped away, only to be apprehended shortly thereafter by the San Diego Police.
“When I learned that Agent Morales stepped up and put himself in harm’s way to protect his friends, his house of worship, and his community from this threat,” I was not surprised,” said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, who served as master of ceremonies at the event. “This is what Border Patrol agents do. The men and women of the Border Patrol have devoted their careers and their lives to safeguard our great nation and put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives of others. On any given day, you will find agents, chasing down drug smugglers or administering CPR to people who have succumbed to the elements,” said Provost. “Even when they are off duty, agents are protectors of their communities. So many agents have stopped to offer aid to people stranded on the side of the road or provide first aid at the scene of an accident. Their bravery and heroism do not clock out at the end of a shift. They are agents 24/7.”
In his remarks, CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez commended Agent Morales. “His bravery almost certainly prevented additional lives from being lost that day. His actions absolutely exemplify CBP’s core values,” said Perez.
At the ceremony, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan spoke about the importance of recognizing heroes. “We don’t hear enough about heroes, the true heroes of this country,” said Morgan. “I think that’s what today is really about—taking just a moment out of our busy lives to step back, take a breath to reflect, to appreciate, to recognize.”
Morgan noted that Agent Morales was humble. “Like most heroes, Jonathan will tell you that he was ‘just doing his job,’” said Morgan. “I think humility is a hallmark of heroism. But we all know that no job in law enforcement is simple, much less easy. It’s a career of service, of selflessness, and of sacrifice. It’s a calling.”
Agent Morales was born and raised in Sacramento, California. He realized he wanted to become a Border Patrol agent while he was attending college. He joined the U.S. Border Patrol in August 2001and was assigned to the El Centro Station in the El Centro Sector. He graduated from the Border Patrol Academy in Glynco, Georgia, with academy class 481.
Agent Morales was awarded by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on October 26, 2019. Since its inception in 1966, the International Association of Chiefs of Police Officer of the Year award has recognized outstanding achievement in law enforcement and has honored heroes who work tirelessly every day to make communities around the world safer.
“This is absolutely a tremendous honor, particularly given the thousands of officers and agents who perform extraordinary acts of heroism every day,” said Perez. “I know that I speak for all of us at CBP when I say how incredibly proud we are of you, Johnny. Thank you for your service. It is an honor to stand alongside of you.”
Agent Morale’s son and daughter accompanied him to the ceremony. The children assisted in unveiling a portrait of their dad that will hang in the entrance to CBP headquarters.
When Agent Morales took the stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation. “We have this saying in the Border Patrol, “honor first,” said Morales. “Every day we put on our green uniforms and go out and we do our job. It also applies to our personal belief. We have a duty. We don’t hesitate to save another life. It’s an honor, it’s a commandment, it’s a mitzvah to do this.”