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“Just Do Your Job” Means Something Different for Police Officers

| November 9, 2018

Sergeant Ron Helus arrived at the scene of an active shooter in Thousand Oaks, California within three minutes of receiving calls for help and did what he was trained to do, what he swore an oath to do: he went in. Immediately struck by gunfire, he died of his wounds at the hospital a short time later. A tragic reminder of what “doing his job” sometimes entails.

The stark contrast to the officer standing outside while Parkland massacre unfolded is noteworthy. Both officers were eligible to retire, both responded very differently.

A lot of keyboard warriors were rightfully outraged at the failure to act demonstrated in the Parkland shooting. Claims that the officer failed to “do his job” are fair, but what exactly does that mean? Does the average citizen believe that a police officer’s “job” is to die? Is that ever their job?

The answer is no. It is not the “job” of a police officer to die. If it were, what would be a fair compensation package for such a job? Dying is, however, a very real possibility in the performance of a police officer’s actual job, which is to serve and protect his or her community. Dying is a possible consequence of doing the job, but it is never the requirement.

Sgt. Helus is a hero not because he was killed, but because he took lifesaving actions knowing he could be. When a police officer engages an active shooter, it changes the incident immediately. This is why the training is often interchangeably called Rapid Response training or Active Shooter training. The sooner officers (or other armed individuals) engage the shooter, the less killing the shooter can do. Sgt. Helus took gunfire that would otherwise have been directed at innocent victims in that bar, he changed the outcome.

Active shooter incidents are still a rare event. Very few police officers will ever be forced to respond to such a scene. Those that do bring with them very different potential outcomes based on their experience, skill, and mindset. There is no such thing as just “doing your job” in such a situation. The officers will make conscious decisions to act or not to act.

The best we can do to ensure that they do act is to properly select, hire, and train them. This is no small task. The skillset of an officer willing to run into the scene of an active shooter is that of a warrior. A very different set of skills is required for almost all of the rest of policing. If an officer lacks either set of skills, then things go very wrong. Full-time warrior training can give us a militarized officer, one that prefers the use of force over any other problem-solving technique. This is undesirable in almost all of the rest of policing. However, removing warrior training all together gives us armed social workers, who might or might not go into that shooting situation if it really happens.

A proper balance is key. Officers should be good social workers, it is what most of their job is about. They must also be warriors. While it is a small portion of their job, the parts that do require a warrior will be spectacular in their failure when one does not show up. Sgt. Helus showed up, and there are people alive today who would not be if he hadn’t. May God bless him and his family.

 

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Randy Petersen spent 21 years as a police officer working in the patrol, investigations, training, and administrative divisions.  He retired as a patrol watch commander in 2014 and became the director of a police academy here in Texas.  He is currently the Senior Researcher for the policing initiative at Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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