Opinion: A rookie officer ran toward semi-automatic gunfire. It was his job
Editor’s Note: Michael Fanone, a former Washington, DC, police officer, is the author of a memoir, “Hold the Line: The Insurrection and One Cop’s Battle for America’s Soul.” He is a CNN law enforcement analyst, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, an avid hunter and sport shooting enthusiast. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
A friend of mine recently asked me about last week’s mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky — one of the 160-odd mass shootings we’ve experienced in this country as of mid-April. The one where a guy in his mid-20s purchased an AR-15-style, semi-automatic rifle equipped with a magazine capable of delivering 30 rounds of ammunition in a matter of seconds. A weapon like ones we send our service members overseas to kill with.
The shooter purchased this devastating weapon of war just days before he entered his place of employment and unleashed his fury in the form of .223-caliber bullets that penetrated the bodies of his targets and likely the walls behind them. One of the victims was a 26-year-old rookie cop named Nickolas Wilt, who is still in critical condition after being shot in the head while responding to the shooting. Shot in the head running toward the gunfire.
This brings me back to the question my friend posed. “It seems so unusual to me to send a kid who’s been out of the academy for a matter of a few days into the most harrowing, challenging kind of policing situation one can imagine.”
My response? “That’s the job.”
Policing is a profession mostly learned through experience. That’s certainly the way I approached it during my 20-year career as a beat cop. There was no way for my instructors in the academy to prepare me for each and every situation encountered. Facing those sometimes harrowing experiences on the job did.
During the course of my day-to-day, I was introduced to police tactics that I employed to fit each incident I faced. I learned the policy and procedure, rules and guidelines that I used to carry out my responsibilities.
In the past few days, we have felt the heartbreak of learning that Wilt was gravely injured in the line of duty while trying to save innocent lives. And just a few weeks ago, we also saw what the American police officer can do when equipped with the right training, the right equipment and most importantly, the right mindset.
At a school in Tennessee last month, officers responded to an active shooter who had taken the lives of teachers and their young students. They entered immediately with no regard for their own safety and shot and killed the assailant. This is the job.
As was the case in Louisville and Tennessee, men and women just like us are asked to set aside their own personal safety to maintain order in our “civilized society.” I will never say that police are above reproach and that reforms are not needed in our criminal justice system, but I will say that the actions of these brave officers are the rule and not the exception.
As a cop, I have witnessed countless acts of bravery and selflessness performed by my colleagues. I can count on one hand the times I saw them betray their oaths. We owe it to these officers to provide them with the best training and afford them the ability to train often. Frequency builds muscle memory. And when you are asked to make complex decisions in a matter of seconds, muscle memory could save the officer’s life or allow them to save yours.
Police officers also deserve state-of-the-art protective equipment. The job carries unavoidable risks, but to the extent that we can keep them safe we owe them that much.
Too many times toward the end of my career I heard politicians, media pundits and even executives in my own department prioritize optics over officer safety. Police need some of the heavy armament that some people criticize as excessive. Yes, armored cars look scary, but they are just bullet-resistant vehicles that keep cops safe.
Finally, we owe it to these officers to reduce the likelihood that they will have to encounter firearms wielded by criminals or those suffering from mental health issues. We need to require background checks for the transfer of all firearms in the United States. Background checks aren’t federally mandated when guns are given as gifts, but they should be. As a gun owner who plans to one day transfer my firearms to my children, I would gladly pay the nominal fee and undergo the slight inconvenience of visiting a local licensed federal firearms dealer to complete that transaction.
In fact, every single firearms transfer in this country should begin with a background check. It takes only a few minutes, and the fees are nominal. It’s a small inconvenience that should be borne by all gun buyers if it means helping keep our fellow Americans safe.
We are all going to have to give a little for the betterment of our country. It’s called compromise. Red flag laws aren’t perfect, but they work. We should embrace them, rather than write them off.
The average gun owner will never convince me that they need an AR-15. You want one because you want one. That’s it. It’s time Americans start placing their public safety needs over their recreational desires. There are many firearm platforms available that serve the same purpose and can be used to accomplish the same goal.
As I thought about Officer Wilt, I recalled my own experiences as a rookie cop working in the inner city.
By the time I was 25, I had seen the effects of gun violence firsthand. The countless shooting scenes in which men, women and children’s bodies were torn apart by bullets. I buried several colleagues, including my former partner James McBride, who died during a training event. Listening to the dispatcher call James’ “End of Watch” was one of the most emotional moments of my life.
Over the course of my two decades as a police officer, I saw the body of an infant who had been killed by the child’s father, who was high on PCP. I fought for my life and the lives of my co-workers, and I stared down the barrel of a gun wielded by a young teenager.
This is the job, and this is what is asked of these officers. Every single goddamn day.