Copyright 2005, Chuck Klein

Published 13 August 2005


BEST OF CHUCK KLEINThe threat of terrorist strikes and the new Homeland Security demands are putting increasing pressure on America's first line of defense. Not only do they now have to continue to deal with the common criminal, handle domestic disputes, traffic accidents and other "regular" duties, but the new level of possible massive attacks is heavy on the mind. However, and this is a big however, the beat cops must not - regardless of the pressure - forsake their duty to adhere to their sworn obligations. No matter what the provocation or public opinion American police officers must adhere to their primary responsibility to protect the citizenry - including even the most reprehensible of perps. Part of this sworn duty includes maintaining the highest level of ethical behavior and the committment to put one's self in harm's way if called upon to do so.

Though this should be a slam-dunk, it is not because too many trainers have been creating a mindset in the rank and file that when faced with dangerous threats, i.e., the beat cop should establish a parimeter, notify his supervisor and wait for the SWAT team to handle the matter. In other words, don't take chances - protect yourself first. This is not only unethical, but a dangerous start down a slippery slope.

Police officers carry firearms and less-than-lethal tools for two reasons: 1) For purposes of self-protection and, 2) To protect society. Ergo, since society allows police to carry these defensive instruments to facilitate the requisites of the job, it goes without saying that officers are expected to place themselves between danger and members of society when so required.

With the best of intentions some police trainers have, in an attempt to save officer's lives, been teaching a mind-set that equates to protect yourself first - don't take chances - suicide in not in your job description.

Perhaps one of the problems is the definitions of words or phrases. Some have interpreted the notion that "police officers should never act in a cowardly manner" to mean cops must sacrifice their lives for the sake of not being labeled chicken. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a difference between sacrifice - suicide (purposely giving up one's life to save another) and duty (complying with a moral or legal obligation related to one's occupation or position). An officer's life is of no greater or lesser value than that of any other citizen. However, because of their unique duty they have agreed, by a sworn oath, to place their life - but not to the point of surrender - at risk. In a timely manner and short of sacrifice, a police officer is duty bound to place his or her life in jeopardy to protect members of society.

No one is saying or expecting a police officer to sacrifice his or her life, but each officer has the duty to protect the public. The very nature of the police occupation is centered around dangerous activity. If the work involved only taking reports, directing traffic and calling in a SWAT team when danger appears, the job could be done by social workers or clerks.

Being afraid is okay. Perhaps the best definition of overcoming fear to perform one's duty is found in the plot and theme song to the early 1950s movie, High Noon. Here, on his wedding day, the town marshall (played by Gary Cooper) learns a man he sent to prison is returning on the noon train. The officer is torn between leaving on his honeymoon, as planned, or staying to face the perp. His bride (played by Grace Kelly) begs her groom to give it up. She leaves without him as Tex Ritter wails the theme song - the watchwords of police officers of all time:

"I do not know what fate awaits me, I only know I must be brave, for I must face the man who hates me, or lie a coward, a craven coward, or lie a coward in my grave."

The bride returns just in time to blow one of the gang members away to save her man, who then out-draws the ex-con. In real life sometimes the perp wins and sometimes the spouse doesn't come back, but to a sworn police officer either one of those situations is preferable than being labeled a craven coward.


When it comes to dealing with dangerous situations, there tend to be three types of police officers: Fool, Coward and Hero. Fortunately, the hero type overwhelmingly represents the American police ranks. In a small, dangerous minority are the others. The Fool is one who temps fate by ignoring training procedures and expertise such as not wearing body armor or, for example, not calling for backup when stopping an armed robbery suspect. While apprehension of criminals is an end in and of itself, per se, only a fool attempts a collar at the expense of officer safety. However, that is not to say that anything short of sacrificing one's life in order to protect/save the life of one you are sworn to serve and protect is not part of the job. This is also not to say that bravado is the same as bravery. There is a difference.

The Coward is one who fails to institute a serious attempt to protect society due to fear or a mindset that equates personal safety over the moral and legal obligation to protect others. Any officer failing to place himself in harms way because of such a mindset is guilty of non-feasance at best or mal-feasance at worst. A coward is also one who flat-out ignores suspicious activity in order to avoid dangerous confrontations. In addition, one of the duties of an FTO is to weed cowards out of the ranks. Of course, if the FTO is a coward....

In response to an article on this subject, one police chief wrote: "Most officers have families, just like everyone else. Their main goal is to get home safely at the end of each shift, and I agree with that philosophy 100 percent." Police officer are not "just like everyone else" they are the only ones with a sworn duty to protect "everyone else". "[T]o get home safely" might be a great concept for sanitation workers or lawyers, but contrary to what this public official espouses, the "main goal" of a police officer should be to serve and protect the public. There is no mandate that any officer should be expected to sacrifice his life, but it does mean there are certain inherent risks that come with the badge and take precedent over the desire "to get home safely". U.S. Secret Service agents' main goal, as we have seen in notorious film clips, is to protect the protectee even if it means using their own bodies as a shield. Should they not do so to insure that they can go home at night? Where would we be if, for the same self-serving reasons, American soldiers had forsaken their duty to engage the enemy during past wars. To put it on a more personal level; suppose you're caught in a firefight, what main goal would you expect of your backup?


The standard that one may use deadly force if one believes he is about to be the victim of a lethal force assault is well established in law. This doctrine of self defense applies to cops as well as civilians. Of course, this belief must be based upon something other than pure fear, such as the perp has a gun or a knife. Even then, being afraid the perp might use the weapon is not sufficient. There must be some overt action or non-action such as refusing to drop the gun, that can only be interpreted as life threatening and immediate. Unleashing a hail of hollow-points without those qualifying conditions is the mark of a coward.

The Hero is one who realizes an officer's primary duty is to protect and serve the public. This American idol firmly believes he would rather be a dead hero than a live coward and would shun another officer who acted in a cowardly manner. However, this officer is not the fool inasmuch as he learns and practices safe tactics and procedures. American policing is the standard of the world, the epitome to which all others aspire. We didn't get that way by unilaterally changing the rules of engagement for egocentric rationality.

Recently, a symposium alleging cowardice during the recent Columbine, Colorado tragedy and other high profile incidents generated some interesting comments. Below are for and against examples of the mind-set of some police officers. Obviously, when it comes to the issue of police cowardice, we are not all on the same page.

Pro: Chief of Police (ret.): "I was beginning to think that the Calibre Press mindset had totally supplanted the public service mentality that I spent 30 years believing to be the duty standard for American policing." "Your three examples serve to illustrate exactly what has gone wrong with the 'me' generation of police officers who will take no risk and shoot too soon."

Pro: C.O., ___ California State Prison, re. the Columbine tragedy: "I would hope they [responding officers] would be begging to enter the school. In the corrections field we would never behave like that."

Pro: Prosecutor's Investigator/former Police Chief: "I have seen, just in my 15-16 years in law enforcement, what I believe is a shift in the mindset of new recruits coming into the profession." "[they] want it all now - the best assignments, the best vehicles, the best equipment, the best pay and benefits and no personal risk or commitment."

Con: Sgt., city police department: "I only thank G-d that you are a FORMER police officer and are not immediately engaged in the training of PRESENT police officers."

Con: Southern city police sergeant: "We may be paid to work in a 'high-risk' occupation, but we are not paid to 'take risks'."

Con: Littleton, CO: "As most people with alphabet credentials hanging out of their backsides, your comments pertaining to Columbine H.S. show that you're long on education and short on brains." "You'd make a good Chief!"

[Author's note:
I received a number of messages from those claiming to have been first-responder witnesses to the Columbine tragedy. Most of these e-mails were lacking in substance. One, signed "(name withheld) SWAT Commander, Columbine," suggested I check certain documents such as "agency report" and "official timeline" pertaining to the incident. When I asked for copies, the Commander replied, "Don't waste my time." Now, one has to wonder if the reports exist in the first place or if they've been doctored or what else is being covered up.

I know what I heard and saw - just like everyone else tuned to network television that day. The Sheriff, in no uncertain words, said he didn't order his men in because he didn't want them to get hurt. The images of officers crouched behind cars while children were at risk will be forever burned into my mind.] 

Except to those who like to make excuses, there is not a fine line between when prudence becomes cowardice or bravado. An officer advised of a man brandishing a gun in a school should request immediate backup and then, without hesitation, proceed into the building. His goal is to find and end the risk. Anything less is cowardice, non-feasance and against all what America stands for. On the other hand, if the officer is advised of a bank robbery in-progress, rushing in might be a foolish move. But, not placing oneself in a position to engage the suspects upon their exiting the bank - even before backup arrives - would certainly be deemed cowardice. Likewise, if a crazed gunman opens fire in a shopping mall, public square, school, duty demands drawing fire away from the unarmed civilians.

The prudent-heroic persona should be the ultimate goal for officers. One can teach prudence to the heroic type person, but not the reverse. Heroism, like cowardice, is intrinsic and not readily learned. Self-preservation is inherent in all humans, though, unlike cowardice, it is not over-riding to the heroic type. Teaching self-preservation as a primary function goes against the grain of the heroic type.


Training, be it class room or on the street, begets predictable behavioral results. All officers must prove to their fellow officers that they are not cowards - that they can be counted on to help a fellow officer under any and all circumstances. Cops must never hesitate to jump into a melee lest they be branded a coward. Civilians, for the most part, are thankful for this machismo as this is what compels cops to risk their lives to protect civilians. Besides, if you were a cop would you want a partner that was afraid to jump into a fisticuff to save your backside?

However, there have been far too many well-documented (some on video tape) Rodney King type beatings. These modern day "blanket parties" are acts of cowardice - actions of police officers who are in reality, cowards, trying to prove their manhood by acting aggressively when there is no chance they will be hurt. Beating the sh-t out of some murderous scumbag might be the only punishment the perp will receive, but it is not, under any standard, an act of bravery. Besides, as justifible as it might seem, police are only impowered to apprehend criminals - not inflict retribution.


This text book ethics stuff is all well and good, but what happens in real life when a sworn police officer witnesses a fellow officer violate the law. Does he arrest the offender? Tattle-tale to the supervisor? Adhere to the "code of blue silence?" Used to be the answer was: "It depends on the infraction." If the violation wasn't something major, like a class A felony, and the public hadn't witnessed it, then it was kept quiet or it was left up to a ranking officer. Problem was, just where do you draw the line? What infractions are reportable? Petty theft? Perjury? DUI? Violating a citizen's civil rights because he spit on you? Turning your back, averting your eyes, not volunteering information are all acts of cowardice.

When it comes to police deviance there are two factors that determine the level of compliance: Peer pressure and trust. Peer pressure dates to grade school and is reprehensible when practiced by trained, sworn police officers who, by their very job description, are individuals. A person who is so mentally weak - cowardly - that he is compelled to go along with the illegal activities of others of his group, is not qualified to wear a badge. It's one thing for a bunch of civilians to sneak off the work detail for a beer (or any other reason) and an entirely different matter for professional - armed - officers to do the same.

Trust in the form of reliance is sometimes difficult to differentiate from trust in the sense of confidentiality. Confidentiality belongs to the "you ain't sh_t if you're not a cop," "good ol' boy," "blue code of silence" schools. Not conducive to professional stature, this type of trust falsely conveys a belief that if an officer "covers-up" or keeps quiet about improper activity he can be trusted as backup when things get really scary. Any professional who stakes his reputation on keeping his mouth shut when he is under a sworn oath not to, is not worthy of the honor of being one of "America's finest." Second, any officer who stakes his back-up support on such a partner who supports the confidentiality mind-set may wind up dead.

Trust in the form of reliance, on the other hand, is of extreme importance to the functioning of any police agency. Cops, being individualists, sometimes need unquestioning reliance from their fellow officers. When an officer's back is exposed during a lethal force or other dangerous situation, this officer needs to know that his partner, his backup, can be counted on to defend him to the death. Being the kind of officer who has mastered the "code of blue silence" is not any indication of how that officer will respond under conditions of extreme stress. The only sure method of determining trust by reliance is the oldest application of trial by fire. On the other hand, an officer who is known for his unquestioning honesty, would be the type of officer who couldn't honestly not take risks to cover your backside.

A few years ago when cops were underpaid, undereducated and selected more for brawn than mental capacity, a certain amount of "discretion" was expected. Not today. Patrol officers routinely earn a decent living wage, have excellent health care packages and retirement plans that customarily exceeds the general population. The substantial amount of on-going training, education and certification police officers receive has elevated their status from that of tradesmen to the level of professional. All professionals have a code of ethics. A doctor will not treat the patient of another physician unless referred and an attorney won't have direct contact with clients of other lawyers. The cops stock-in-trade is honesty and integrity - he must, above all, not compromise these.

An officer who acts as a coward by adhering to the code of blue silence to cover-up the illegal, unethical and/or immoral behavior of a fellow officer must be removed from office.

Police officers are in the business of honesty. This is their stock-in-trade, forte', signature, persona, identification and what differentiates them from other professions. When one police officer violates this trust, this code of honesty, all are tarnished. Adherence to or practice of any form of "blue code of silence" is counter to the code of honesty that is part of each officer's sworn duty - his existence for being. The trust each officer has in his fellow officer must be based on the proposition that truth, not cover-up or silence, will save his career. For a police officer or anyone with sworn obligations, justice is more important than friendship.


The terroristic assaults of 9-11-01 evidenced true acts of heroism. In a feature article in Smithsonian Magazine (September 2002), two naval officers, "...turned against the flow of people fleeing to safety and headed toward what appeared to be the point of greatest destruction." At risk to their own personal safety and though severely injured, these officers were responsible for saving lives. This is what America is all about - duty and honor in the face of death.

THE BADGEPolice officers must never stray from the standard of protect the public first and accept the reality that placing oneself in harm's way and sticking to the truth regardless of the consequences is part of the job. As the entire country prepares for the certainess of future terristic attacks we must be secure in our persons and places that America's Finest will not ignone their heroic duties and always act in the most ethical of ways. If America's first line of defense fails this simple edict, America and the American police profession are in deep trouble.


About the Author: Chuck Klein is former police officer, active member of International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) and author of police text books. Information about his books and e-mail contact is available on his web site: www.chuckklein.com