A Cop Who Didn’t Kill And His Angry Union
September 14, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Every year the Los Angeles Police Department holds an award ceremony to recognize individual cops who have exceeded normal expectations. They call it Above and Beyond. Officers are honored for heroic acts in the line of duty. These may be for pulling a crash victim out of a burning car, protecting a fellow officer during a deadly gun battle or any number of heroic deeds. For this, they are awarded the Medal of Valor.
This year, things were a little different. A new award was being handed-out alongside the Medal of Valor. Named the Preservation of Life Medal, it is given to officers who showed restraint when they could have legally discharged their weapons or otherwise escalated dangerous situations into deadly ones.
Okay, time for a quick pop quiz. This is a tough one but who in the world could have a problem with that? Not the guy who didn’t get shot while refusing to drop a fake gun or the guy who was taken down with beanbags instead of bullets. Yes, you guessed it: The Los Angeles Police Protective League board of directors. For the most part they don’t like it at all and immediately made their factually ambiguous case about it in a blog post after LAPD Chief Police Chief Charlie Beck introduced the medal Last year:
We recognize the Chief’s intentions, however, the reality is the “Preservation of Life” award announced Tuesday by Chief Beck is ill-conceived and in actuality has dangerous implications. Incentivizing officers for “preservation of life” suggests somehow that this is not what they train hard to do. It suggests that officers must go above and beyond their normal activities to avoid harm; or put another way, that officers will be penalized for resorting to an appropriate, lawful use of force. That is ludicrous. The last thing an LAPD officer wants to do is to harm, or worse yet, take the life of a suspect.
What is ludicrous is every word in the quote above. No cop is thinking about getting a medal while they are pulling someone out of a burning car or facing a guy holding an ax and a case of berserk rage. The medal simply recognizes the way an officer reacted to a given situation where but for that officer’s actions, the whole incident could have been tragic.
Offering a medal in recognition of preservation of life doesn’t incentivize cops to de-escalate any more than offering a medal for valor incentivizes them to run towards a burning car containing a trapped motorist.
At least one of the Union’s directors appeared to have a slightly different view on the matter after last Thursday’s ceremony. After listening to the stories about the incidents giving rise to each medal awarded, union vice president Jerretta Sandoz said:
Those stories that I heard today, it took tremendous courage to do their job. It made me proud to be a police officer.
For a police department with a significant history of violence against its own residents, the new use of force recommendations and recognition of cops who make it so everybody gets to go home for dinner are a step in the right direction. This is recognizing the guardian view of policing rather than the warrior, and you can be certain that cops holding the latter mindset will oppose special recognition for preserving the life of anyone but cops.
It’s no secret that cops can be fired for trying to keep a man alive on the premise that they endangered other officers. One California cop was terminated after refusing to use his stun gun on a 150 lb student who was already down and had been stunned twice by other officers already. He simply felt that more pain and escalation was not warranted and wouldn’t benefit the student. This guy is the kind of cop people can respect. Other cops can learn to respect them too, one by one through ceremonies like last week in Los Angeles.
Changing the image of the hero cop from warrior to guardian is an uphill battle. The LAPD just took a couple of baby steps; maybe some other city will try it next.