It is standard practice of police departments across the country to honor officers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in doing their jobs. But a recent ceremony of the Los Angeles Police Department deserves special attention.
For the first time, the department saluted officers who resolved dangerous situations without loss of life – even when their own lives were threatened and use of deadly force would have been justified. At a time of increasing emphasis on the need for successful de-escalation strategies and better training in policing, Los Angeles is right to expand the definition of heroism.
The department awarded its newly minted “Preservation of Life” medal to 25 officers. Among the recipients were two officers who encountered a man waving an assault rifle at street traffic and managed to get him to drop the gun – later found to be a fake – without firing a shot. Another officer awarded the medal, which is on par with the department’s Medal of Valor, participated in an incident in which a man with a gun was subdued with use of a nonlethal bean-bag shotgun.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck last year announced the creation of the award, saying he had been inspired by an incident in which officers successfully arrested a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun without shooting or killing him. The award engendered some controversy, with the police union calling it a “terrible idea” that placed a higher value on the lives of suspected criminals than police officers. That stance, the Los Angeles Times reported, seems to have softened with the recounting of these officers’ actions. “Very, very heroic acts,” said one union official.
A handful of other cities, including Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., have similar awards. They come at time when the shootings of unarmed black men by police have sparked a national conversation about race and policing and the need for reform in police practices and policies. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross explained to the Associated Press: “An officer going home is of paramount importance to us, but everybody should have an opportunity to go home if that presents itself. This is an effort to slow down situations for the sake of everybody concerned.”
To be sure, medals alone won’t change police behavior or build public trust. But by celebrating situations in which life has been preserved, they send a powerful message. And that’s a good start.