October 3, 2020

Paying Tribute to the Heroes of the Summer of 2020


Dear PERF members, 

Just as people today are studying the 1918 flu pandemic, a hundred years from now, in the year 2120, people will look back and ask, “What was the summer of 2020 like?”

There will be videos of people wearing masks everywhere, and the sad stories of the more 1 million people who died, including more than 200,000 in the United States, and the 34 million who were infected worldwide. There will be photos of empty streets and businesses that were closed. Like everywhere else in the country, here in Washington the streets from the White House to the Capitol still look like a ghost town, seven months into the crisis.

As people in 2120 read the stories about the summer of 2020, somewhere in the third or fourth paragraph there will be mention of a terrible tragedy that occurred in Minneapolis involving an arrest that turned fatal, and the uproar that ensued, as cities and towns across America and even around the world faced demonstrations, riots, and demands for police reform.

And people will wonder, “How did the police respond to all this?”

And as I think about that – how the are police responding right now – I think of the unique quality that I so love and admire about good cops: They always rise to the occasion. This is the part of police culture that must be preserved. My experience over the years is that what makes policing so distinctive is officers’ intangible ability to unflinchingly look a crisis in the face, and not turn away.  To step into a difficult or dangerous situation, when others would run from it.

Even in the worst of times, good cops step up. And police leaders really find out who are the good cops, the hard workers, and the ones who have the compassion and selflessness to excel.  I’ve written about good cops before, but I think you would be hard pressed to find a summer when cops were more thoroughly tested, and they rose to the occasion. 

And strangely, it seems that when there’s a crisis, whether it’s a hurricane or an active shooter situation or a Boston bomber or a D.C. sniper or even a 9/11, you actually see police officers’ morale go up.  Why?  Because ultimately, this is why cops became cops. To be prepared to risk their life to save someone’s else’s. Or simply to keep doing their job when they’re being yelled at on the street, when they’re exhausted from 12-hour shifts and 100 straight days of demonstrations, when they’re worried about catching COVID and bringing it home to their families, or when they’re constantly called upon to help people, but it seems like nobody outside their department is interested in helping them.

So this column is my tribute to the heroes of the summer of 2020. There are thousands of these heroes. Here are just a few of the examples I’m thinking of:

-- The Minneapolis state trooper who pulled over a woman for speeding. Turned out that the woman was a cardiologist, making the long drive from her home state of Massachusetts to her job in Minnesota, because COVID had made flying unsafe. Trooper Brian Schwartz gave the doctor a warning about driving too fast – and he also gave her several N95 masks.

“I burst into tears,” the cardiologist said. “In my darkest moments, I have worried about what would happen if I fell sick far from home. This stranger shared his precious masks with me, without my even asking.”

-- The Union City, NJ officer who contracted the Coronavirus after performing CPR on his mother, who had COVID-19. Officer Octavio Robles spent 22 days in the hospital, including more than two weeks on a ventilator, before being released. When asked how he had the courage to risk his life, Officer Robles said, “Wouldn’t you face the devil for your mother?”

-- The West Allis, WI police officer who received his COVID stimulus check and decided to donate it to people who needed it more than he did. “As an essential employee, I'm still getting paid, and the way that I look at it is, there are definitely people out there who need more help than I do,” said Officer Charles Clark.

-- Often, it’s not an individual officer, but an entire department that steps up in a crisis. Very early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when most departments were scrambling to adjust their own operations to ensure that the virus didn’t result in entire squads being quarantined, the Vancouver, WA Police Department found time to start a program to help elderly residents receive their prescriptions. Vancouver police credited police departments in Lake Oswego and Forest Grove, Oregon for having the idea first.

-- A number of police chiefs and officers have gone to great lengths to defuse demonstrations by taking a knee – people like NYPD Chief of Department Terry Monahan and Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills.  Who would have ever thought that cops would do this, despite the pushback that they may receive internally?  

-- Houston Chief Art Acevedo gave an impassioned, impromptu speech to a crowd of protesters, discussing his solidarity with their goals.

-- Police in Portland deserve credit for enduring more than 100 straight nights of protests, including many in which officers were pelted with rocks and other thrown objects and fireworks. Police in Seattle and other jurisdictions also have demonstrated remarkable patience with demonstrations and violence that has continued for months.


Of course, no one thinks that all police officers always rise to every occasion. We’ve seen some issues with how some demonstrations have been handled. As I’ve been saying in recent issues of Trending, the profession needs to institutionalize “Monday morning quarterbacking,” which will result in a constant search for ways to improve how things are done, while increasing accountability. But today, I’m focusing on what’s best in policing.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to all of the police officers, sheriffs’ deputies, and civilian employees who have endured serious illnesses or in many cases passed away due to COVID-19 exposures they received on the job. Approximately 120 law enforcement officers have died as a result of COVID, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. This is almost certainly an undercount. Other sources put the number at more than 200. 

The NYPD received the brunt of COVID in the early weeks, with nearly 20% of its officers out sick at one point, and 46 deaths to date, most of whom were civilian employees. Often, civilians make up a large share of police employees who contract COVID, but they are not included in many counts.

Many police chiefs and sheriffs have contracted the Coronavirus, including Miami Chief Jorge Colina, Detroit Chief James Craig, Aurora, IL Chief Kristen Ziman, Volusia County, FL Sheriff Mike Chitwood, Pinellas County, FL Sheriff Bob Gualtieri,  Sioux City, IA Chief Rex Mueller, and others. Even in quarantine, they continued to lead their agencies, and they have used their experiences to promote safety among their employees and the community.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope my examples convey to you what I mean about police rising to the occasion – any occasion.  2020 has been a horrific year, and police officers and chiefs and sheriffs have borne the brunt of it in many ways.  I’m grateful for their service.

In fact, we should also be thankful to so many others who risk their lives during this pandemic to make our lives better.  Everyone in the medical profession, of course, and also the grocery clerks, McDonald’s workers, mail carriers, delivery workers, carry-out restaurant employees, and others – I consider all of these people heroes in their own way. We should go out of our way to recognize them and thank them when we can.