The Kind of Courage America Demands of Its Police

The president is calling a sheriff’s deputy who failed to confront an active shooter a coward—a word seldom applied to officers who choose to protect themselves by shooting.

Jonathan Drake / Reuters

In Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting, a sheriff’s deputy faced widespread criticism last week amid reports that he heard AR-15 fire yet failed to rush into the high school he was assigned to protect. Critics say he should’ve risked his life to confront the gunman with his service weapon. “When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage, or something happened,” President Donald Trump said. “He certainly did a poor job. That’s the case where somebody was outside, they are trained, they didn’t react properly under pressure or they were a coward.”

It was the first time I can recall a policeman being labeled a coward by any federal official, let alone a law-and-order type who bristles at most criticism of cops.

And even though the facts of the case are hardly clear and the deputy maintains that he thought the shooter was outside the school, Trump was hardly alone.

The hashtag #CowardofBroward began trending on Twitter.

A high school student who survived the attack told a TV interviewer that he has this message for the deputy: “You’re despicable. You didn’t do your job. You were trained for this. You were armed. You had a bullet-proof vest. You were protected more than anybody else. You did nothing. You froze, you got scared, you did nothing at all, and you could have saved a lot of lives.” Tucker Carlson declared on Fox News that the deputy “may not have been the only coward on the scene. Brand-new reports suggest that three other Broward County deputies arrived at the school during the massacre but did not enter … instead they hid behind their vehicles until Coral Springs police officers arrived and found them.”

“On the right,” Jonah Goldberg wrote, “the general response ranged from righteous disgust and condemnation to humble and understanding disgust and condemnation.” His National Review colleague David French offered one of the most nuanced assessments, arguing for both empathetic understanding and censure.

As he saw it, when a police officer or soldier agrees to put on a uniform, they are indicating a willingness to lay down their lives to protect their community in a crisis. Even so, he continued, some soldiers wilt under fire, some cops hang back while others charge ahead, and no one ever knows if they have the immense strength it takes to expose themselves to mortal danger until having felt true fear.

From those premises, he concluded:

Cultivating courage is a complex and difficult task. Some armies are better at it than others. Some civilizations are better at it than others. And no sane army or civilization relies merely on the inherent goodness or virtue of their warriors to maintain resolve. Courage comes through inspiration—we aspire to do great things—but it can also come through fear. There are soldiers or cops who ultimately fear shame more than death. They fear condemnation. Some fear punishment.

That’s why armies throughout history have celebrated valor and punished cowardice. There is a carrot and a stick. Great sacrifice brings great honor. Abject cowardice brings severe sanction. Failure carries with it a deep sense of shame. Adjust that balance—remove the shame of failure—and you risk draining courage from your culture.

We can and should state this moral truth while remaining deeply humble and self-aware. There is a world of difference between stating, “That cop should have intervened” and puffing out your chest and declaring, “I would have done better.” You can imagine the kind of person you want to be, and you can dream of being a hero, but many imaginary warriors have turned tail at the sound of the guns … you don’t truly know how you’ll respond to a crisis until you’ve been in a crisis. In other words, we can understand his failure even if we cannot justify that failure. To fail to understand is to fail to grapple with fallen humanity. To justify it is to surrender to that fallen nature and normalize cowardice. Failure is not inevitable. Courage is possible.

If David French is right, I wonder: Does America define such courage broadly enough?

Before dawn on a winter morning five years ago, Emma Hernandez, 71, was out delivering newspapers with her 47-year-old daughter, Margie Carranza, who drove their blue pickup slowly past the houses of Los Angeles Times subscribers. Little did they know that one of the streets on their route was home to a high-ranking LAPD official—and that his house was being guarded by local cops amid a manhunt for Christopher Dorner, a disgruntled ex-cop on a killing spree who seemed to be targeting various figures in law enforcement. During the manhunt for Dorner, police officers all over Southern California were on high alert.

Soon the women turned onto the street where the LAPD official lived. As Margie Carranza slowed to 5 miles per hour to toss a newspaper onto a driveway she noticed a police car outside a house up the street, but didn’t see any cops.

Moments later, when the women were roughly 130 feet away from the detail guarding the house, police officers somehow mistook their blue truck, occupied by two Hispanic females, for the gray truck that Dorner, a 6-foot-tall, 270-pound African American was driving. They fired more than 100 rounds into the vehicle. The older woman was hit twice in the back; both miraculously survived. The highest-ranking officer on the scene––the man whose house was under protection––said, “I mean, the truck, in the dark, you know, if you look at the truck from the one side in the dark, it looks gray.” Other officers talked about how the sound of a newspaper hitting the pavement can resemble a gunshot.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told The Los Angeles Times, “As an officer, you look for cues. You know how someone drives normally and then you see someone coming at you slowly, driving in the middle of the street, stopping and starting. That can be misinterpreted.” But the incident wasn’t actually caused by hitherto unappreciated similarities in routine newspaper delivery and a killer on a spree. The cops started firing because knowing that a cop killer was out there, somewhere, was unusually scary and their fright got the best of them. Perhaps unconsciously, they put others at greater risk to better protect themselves.

As if to underscore just how on edge and frightened police were that morning, David Perdue, a white, 160-pound surfer driving a black pickup truck, was also mistaken for Christopher Dorner and shot by a different police officer.

In the days that followed, I heard a lot of harsh words used to criticize the offending cops: idiotic, clueless, incompetent, knuckle-headed, reckless. But I cannot recall anyone calling those cops cowardly or questioning their courage (myself included), even though they shot up vehicles that were simply driving down the street before they could even identify even so much as the race or gender of their drivers.

Nor can I recall any other instance of multiple, prominent right-leaning commentators calling a police officer cowardly in the aftermath of any dubious police shooting. Someone surely made that criticism, everything having been said on the internet, but courage simply isn’t a part of mainstream discourse on police killings and shootings of unarmed people, even though the explicit defense invoked by police officers in almost all such cases is literally, “I feared for my life.”

Isn’t that the very same feeling the deputy in Florida is thought to have experienced?

If so, what explains the dearth of commentary on courage after other police shootings? If an officer is expected to rush toward the sound of gunfire without backup to confront a premeditated killer, and is widely condemned for failing to take that huge risk, why wasn’t a failure of courage widely attributed to the police officer who killed Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun in a park? Even if that police officer feared for his life, briefly holding fire while assessing that situation arguably required far less courage than confronting a mass shooter.

Or consider Daniel Shaver, the unarmed man killed by police officers in Mesa, Arizona, as he crawled slowly toward them in a hotel hallway, begging them not to shoot. The officer who killed him said he feared for his life when he saw Shaver reach for his waistband. That cop was roundly criticized after the fact for what some called an execution, yet his misjudgment wasn’t cast as a failure of courage, or as cowardice, though he killed without seeing a gun, apparently to guard against the chance that hands momentarily hidden from view might produce one.

Had I been the school resource officer in Parkland, Florida, or the Cleveland officer who shot Tamir Rice, or the officer with a gun trained on Daniel Shaver, I like to think I’d have acted with more courage—but know that it’s impossible to know what I’d actually have done under pressure. Perhaps I would’ve had the best of intentions and yet failed in the same ways. Still, rushing toward an active shooter would be orders of magnitude more demanding, for me, than waiting to see if a juvenile pointed a weapon in my direction, or holding my fire in a hotel hallway with fellow officers all around me until such time as I actually saw a gun.

None of this is a call to stigmatize any individual cop as a coward. I am skeptical of the public’s ability to apply stigma against individuals in a just, constructive way. And I don’t think a dearth of individual courage in policing is a big problem. Indeed, I would guess that the typical police officer possesses above-average courage—and there are countless individual acts of courage by police to celebrate.

But if the nation is suddenly inclined to examine failures of courage, it’s worth noting that it is extremely common for law-enforcement unions and agencies to adopt policies that afford cops more safety while making the needless deaths of innocents more likely. I have personally witnessed a police officer shooting a mentally ill man with a tiny knife in a situation that fell within the LAPD’s use-of-force policy.

I blame that officer’s training and his professional lobby.

Flashbang grenades are misused egregiously. And policymakers are at fault for failing to constrain their use.

SWAT raids on the houses and apartments of people suspected of nonviolent crimes, a commonplace tactic in American law enforcement, ostensibly reduce the risk for police officers, but they increase it for inhabitants, including children.

As Radley Balko has written, “where violent, volatile SWAT tactics were once used only in limited situations where someone was in the process of or about to commit a violent crime—where the police were using violence only to defuse an already violent situation—SWAT teams today are overwhelmingly used to investigate people who are still only suspected of nonviolent consensual crimes. And because these raids often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they’re actually creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.”

I blame the general culture of policing—the collective failure of courage—not individual cops.

And I blame the public.

I suspect that those policies pass muster because the public conceives of them being directed at criminals, despite the theoretical standard of “innocent until proven guilty” and the fact that many victims of those policies are in fact innocent. Yet even after officers are proved wrong in their judgment that someone is a criminal, their mere initial belief seems to retroactively render the life of that person less valuable in the minds of the public than the lives of Parkland victims.

So while I wish as fervently as anyone that the school resource officer in Florida would’ve rushed into the school and tried to save some of those 17 victims, it seems to me that those directing censure at a man who may have failed to exhibit what would’ve been extraordinary courage in the moment ought to look more closely and critically at the premeditated adoption of policies that lead to more overall innocents dying to spare police from facing relatively less dangerous situations.

Can it be that asking cops to face mass shooters without backup is reasonable but asking them to shoot a mentally ill man with a tiny knife in the leg rather than center mass or to eschew no-knock SWAT raids for nonviolent crimes is too much?

The courage required for cops to take the lead to reform current policy, against their interests, would be of a different sort than the courage needed to face an unexpected gunman. But even if one thinks classic valor is most laudable, encouraging the more calculated, premeditated sort of courage would likely save more innocents. Can we at least stop calling cops who choose not to shoot cowards?