March 27, 2021

A Time for Guardians and a Time for Warriors


Dear PERF members, 

For a country almost numbed by 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the back-to-back mass shooting incidents in Atlanta and Boulder shocked us back to a sad reality. Two individuals, armed with powerful weapons, entered local businesses and senselessly opened fire on employees, customers, and responding police officers. Eighteen people were killed, including Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, and two communities were left broken and bewildered.

These events highlighted how our thinking on the police response to active shooters has evolved over time.  You’ll recall back in 1999 that the officers who initially responded to the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado were roundly criticized for not engaging the two teenaged gunmen right away. At that time, the training and policies of most agencies were that the first responding officers should secure the scene and wait for specialized and heavily armed SWAT personnel to arrive and confront an active shooter.

Columbine brought about the realization that it was imperative for officers to respond more quickly and directly. But what happens when a lone officer is the first to arrive at an active shooter scene, with no backup in sight?

In our 2014 report on active shooter response, PERF examined the risks of a solo response.  Professor Pete Blair of Texas State University, the foremost expert on active shooters, looked at 84 incidents over an 11-year period. He found that when a lone first-responding officer ran to the sound of gunfire, they ended up being shot in one-third of the casesSo there’s no question, solo response is in fact extremely dangerous.

Still, there was no consensus at the time about whether officers in that situation should be required to immediately move toward and engage the shooter, or rather should wait to form a two- or three-person entry team. The general feeling was that it was up to the individual solo officer to assess the risks and decide when and how to enter.

But after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, there was another major shift in thinking.  In that case, a sheriff’s deputy was criminally charged for failing to enter the school as students were being shot. 

After Parkland, a consensus emerged that a lone police officer does have a duty to engage an active shooter, despite the high risk of being shot and even losing his or her own life. Although we have found that some departments still have polices that are vague about whether that first officer should wait for backup, most departments today train their officers to go in right away.

Stop and think about that for a moment. In these extremely chaotic situations, when everyone else is running from danger or trying to hide from it, police officers must be prepared to rush in and put their own lives on the line in an effort to save others. And if they’re by themselves, one in three of those officers can expect to be shot, maybe killed.

Some people have commented that other occupations are also dangerous, and they point to things like Bureau of Labor Statistics reports indicating that loggers, airline pilots, and workers engaged in fishing, agriculture and construction face risks.  But the vast majority of these people are killed in accidents. They may die in dangerous situations, but there isn’t an expectation that they should rush toward the danger, as police officers do.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but it’s important sometimes to remind ourselves about one inescapable fact of policing. There are times when being a cop means that you need to be prepared to risk your life to save others. That is what makes policing different from just about any other occupation.

And that is what makes people like Eric Talley stand out.

When Police Chief Maris Herold stepped up to the microphones after the shooting in Boulder, it was gut-wrenching to watch as she eloquently recounted his incredible life story.

An 11-year veteran of the police department, Officer Talley was married with seven children. He had earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in computer science, paving the way to a successful career in IT management. But when a close friend was killed by a drunk driver, he was inspired to leave all that behind to become a cop at the age of 40. (In that respect, Officer Talley also demonstrated that police agencies should rethink age limitations on those who decide to begin a second career in policing).

By all accounts, Officer Talley was the kindest, most generous person you could hope to meet. A black belt himself, he taught students Tae Kwon Do while he was in college. In 2013, he and two other officers made local headlines when they rescued a team of ducklings and their mother from a drainage ditch.

Officer Talley taught his own children CPR. Two weeks before he was killed, one of his sons was given an award by Chief Herold for using those skills to assist a baby brother who had swallowed a quarter.

He also was a true guardian of the Boulder community. But when the unthinkable happened and his community needed someone who had the training and the courage to confront an active shooter – a warrior, if you will – Officer Talley answered that call without hesitation.

There has been a growing debate in recent years over whether we should train our police officers to be guardians or warriors. Officer Talley reminds us that this is a false dichotomy. We need officers who can be both guardian and warrior, and who possess the wisdom and the bravery to know when each role is needed.

So when a mother calls the police because her son is off his medications and barricaded in his room swinging a baseball bat, the responding officers understand that the woman wants help in getting her child under control, and the last thing she would want is for the police to injure him. The responding officers need to approach this situation very differently from an active shooter or other violent crime in progress. They need to slow down and assess the situation, create distance, initiate communication, bring in additional resources if needed, and use time to reach a peaceful resolution.

This is how policing is changing. Instead of relying on outdated concepts like the use-of-force continuum in these types of situations, officers need to utilize a more flexible approach such as the Critical Decision-making Model. They need to think about de-escalation first, and escalation only when absolutely necessary. All of that is the essence of being a guardian.

But when an officer receives the call of a gunman firing inside a supermarket, a completely different response is needed. Officers instinctively know when it’s time to speed up, to close the distance between themselves and danger without waiting for backup. And they are forced to make split-second decisions. Like Officer Talley, they must come prepared to put others before themselves. That is the essence of being a warrior: If not them, who will be prepared to stop the killer?

And isn’t that the nobility of policing – what sets it apart from every other profession I can think of? We want and expect our cops to be guardians 99% of the time. But when that one call comes, we expect them to shift into warrior mode without hesitation or thought for their own safety.

For too long, the guardian and warrior concepts have been viewed as being in conflict. In fact, they are both very much part of what makes up a modern-day police officer: the ability to slow down, back up and defuse certain incidents, using communication, empathy and patience, combined with the courage and selflessness to rush to danger when no one else is there to respond and lives are at stake.

The sanctity of human life is the first of PERF’s 30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force. Sometimes it takes a guardian to achieve that goal; other times it takes a warrior. The city of Boulder was blessed to have a hero who understood both of those roles and who gave his all to protect his community.

Weekend Clips are below.