Never forget? Try impossible to forget, with recent reminders like the 2022 death of Harlemite Janelle Sanders. Inextricably tied to 9/11, she responded to the World Trade Center attacks just a year into her NYPD career in a literal trial-by-fire. Exactly 21 years later, on Sept. 11 of last year, Sanders died from a 9/11-related cancer first announced by her union, the NYPD Captains Endowment Association. She was 44.

The third of four children growing up in Harlem’s Polo Grounds Towers, Sanders initially aspired to become an attorney, but an NYPD recruiter at a high school career fair encouraged her to test for the force. She officially joined the department in 2000 and was fresh out of the academy, working in the Bronx, when she was called to duty on September 11, 2001, by voicemail. Despite her mother’s reservations, Sanders headed to Ground Zero. 

“I remember 911 as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was in college in London,” said her sister Sharisse Sanders. “I remember seeing the towers and the smoke on the screens as I walked from class. I wasn’t able to get in touch with anybody here in the U.S. for a couple of days, and I was worried because my sister just graduated from the police academy and she’s out on the streets. I’m sure she’s there. 

“I finally got to talk to her a couple days later…she said it was just an unbelievable thing, but she knew it was her duty to be there. And she didn’t second-guess anything.”

Sanders went on to rise through the ranks, ultimately promoted to captain in her home precinct, the 32nd. Her colleagues say she requested placement in Harlem, an aberration given the usual reservations and safety concerns for police to work where they live. 

“That was a full-circle moment for us because she was now heading to the precinct that policed our neighborhood,” said her brother Rashad Sanders. “Even my friends were proud because we were like, if somebody can make a change, it definitely could be somebody that comes from here. That was the full-circle moment, her being able to police our old neighborhood.”

Sanders added, “Being a Black person in America and then being a law enforcement officer, you see how things go from both sides of the table. [She] was never one-sided on the job. Right was right, wrong was wrong—which I always liked about her. Sometimes when you talk to cops, you get a law enforcement perspective only, instead of from a humanity perspective—she would give you both. She’s truly missed. I think about her every day.”

Her siblings say the past year was naturally tough for the family, especially given how abrupt her illness was. Their mother is still coming to terms. Sanders’ two daughters are both entering their senior years—one in high school and the other in college. And her dog Hunter is currently with Sharisse Sanders—currently an NYPD lieutenant—who calls herself his “dog auntie.” 

NYPD Housing Sgt. John Schad, who worked under Sanders in 2014, credits her as his mentor and recalled her investment toward her “second family” in the police department. 

“Even to her last days…she was always asking about the people that work with her, how their lives are going,” said Schad. “Even my new details—people maybe she hadn’t worked with [in] years. In many ways, she was an older sister to me and sometimes the mother to the cops.”

Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Tarik Sheppard recalled attending the first grade together with Sanders. Years later, they reconnected on the force. He said she set high goals for not only himself, but others.

“Janelle was trying to talk me into taking the captain’s exam and I said, ‘I already make good money and I don’t know if I want to be a captain,’” said Sheppard. “I [was] pretty comfortable with being a lieutenant special assignment. She basically sat me down and talked about making a change. It’s about how many people we can affect and help as executives and it’s not about how much money we make…I would not have taken that captain’s exam and wouldn’t be a deputy commissioner right now had it not been for my friend Janelle Sanders.”

Inspector Amir Yakatally and Captain Jose Taveras, who worked with Sanders at the 32nd shortly before she died, say she was a role model for young Black girls in Harlem who saw themselves in her. According to them, her door was quite literally always open for others. They added that she was the “heart and soul” of the 32nd, especially when the precinct dealt with the high-profile killing of officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora in January of last year. 

“That was such a heartbreaking tragedy for us, and without a doubt, Janelle was the glue that held this command together,” said Taveras, who now heads the 26th Precinct. “She was somebody that was just so kind, and so genuine, and the cops were in incredible pain, but they knew she cared for them.”

“If someone [was] going through something, they felt like they could go to her,” added Yakatally. “Countless times, we come into the office and she’s hugging someone or consoling someone. Getting to know people on a personal [level]. When it came to work, she was all business. She was tough. But she would always say it doesn’t mean you have to ignore the human element of this job.”

Those around her saw Sanders as invincible in life—Sheppard still winces when he recalls the congratulatory playful punch she gave him when he passed the captain’s exam. They all said she was a fitness enthusiast who organized 5K runs in her workplace and took her health with utmost seriousness. Sharisse Sanders said her sister went for mammograms and 9/11-related cancer screenings annually. And Yakatally and Taveras recall the precinct confidently prepared for when—not if—Sanders would return to work from her illness. 

But the diagnosis came abruptly and those around her had little time to prepare for her cancer and subsequent death. Her brother said she still had big plans beyond the NYPD. Sanders was up for retirement, thanks to her early start in law enforcement. There was even talk about revisiting her early dreams of becoming a lawyer and enrolling in law school. 

“My whole plan was for us to grow old together and move closer to each other and ride out to the sunset,” said Rashad Sanders. “It just didn’t go that way. It caught everyone off guard. She got sick [and] diagnosed and it was over fast.”

And Sanders isn’t the only one. Deaths stemming from 9/11-related illnesses due to toxic exposure likely outpace the nearly 3,000-person death count from the attacks today. Sharisse Sanders said besides her sister, she also lost her boyfriend eight years ago to 9/11-related cancer. Back then, they spoke about the possibility of facing a similar illness.

“She was just like, ‘Listen, we took a job [and] we knew the risks,’” said Sharisse Sanders. “Unfortunately, this is something that came out of it. I’m gonna do everything in my power to fight this thing, but I don’t regret anything.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting

Join the Conversation


  1. We offer Copy Paste Jobs , Proof Reading jobs, Data entry jobs and other part time jobs. Join Now and Start Working Today No Investment required , uc No need previous Experience. Start Working Today. 24×7 Customer Support. No need any Experience.
    Click It And Apply…….. Social Media Team Here

  2. Great, Great email. IM fully backing Kamala Harris for standing firm against racist-attacks andbracist-violence in USA too .

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *