By Joe Ragonese
Throughout my life I have been in positions where life and death were only seconds from each other. Four years on active duty in the Air Force, followed by a 36 year police career. During those 40 years there were thousands of men and women who worked alongside me and who served bravely, honestly, and honorably, and in all that time I only met four cowards. Each instance of cowardice has been embedded in my memory because it was so rare.
I mention this because an act of cowardice by someone who should not behave in that manner disgraced the badge that all police officers wear bravely and honorably each and every day. I am shamed by the behavior of Broward County Deputy, Scot Peterson, whose cowardly behavior resulted in the death of 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day.
It would be easy to counter my words by simply saying that I wasn’t there and don’t know what happened or what stress he was going through; however, I have walked in his shoes and know exactly what it takes to face an armed gunman who is actively shooting. That excuse won’t hold with me, I have been there.
A police officer straps on his pistol each and every day knowing that he may be placed in a position to use that gun over the course of his next shift; it is something that comes with the job. If you are not prepared, both physically and mentally to pull your sidearm and use it, at the risk of your own life, then hang up the gun-belt and find a new career.
My first encounter with a coward was in the Air Force. In August 1964, I qualified as a Command & Control Specialist, a position that took me a full year to learn. That qualification allowed me to work, unsupervised, in the Combat Alert Center and control aircraft into combat. A week after receiving my certification, two American ships, on two different days, were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam.
Only days afterward President Johnson asked Congress for, and received authorization to “take all steps necessary to stop another attack in international waters by the peoples of North Vietnam.” It is known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and it sent us to war. Johnson was going to send American bombers into North Vietnam to punish them for their actions; however, America had assets in South Vietnam which were vulnerable to the North Vietnamese Air Force. To protect Americans and our equipment, selected members of the 25th Air Division, Air Defense Command, were sent to set up a quick Air Defense of South Vietnam.
Different assets from the 25th Air Division were sent, including Command & Control Specialists from the 322nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, of which I was part of. As I was just certified, and only an Airman Second Class (E-3) I wasn’t selected to go; sergeants with more experience were chosen. One of those sergeants, was due to reenlist at the end of August, and after 12 years in the Air Force, training to go into combat, he decided that the risk of going to war wasn’t worth his pension. He refused to go, and I went in his place, without a second thought. It was what I joined for.
My next encounter with a coward was as a training officer as a member of the Cook County Police Department. I was assigned a rookie, right out of the police academy and was supposed to turn him into a policeman. On our second week, together, we responded to a domestic disturbance where upon arrival there were two men fighting on the front porch. I exited the car and separated the two combatants.
While calming the situation, one of the men asked me what he was doing, and pointed to my car. I looked and the rookie, who was still sitting in the passenger seat with the door locked, staring at us. Things were still tense at the domestic, but I took the time to walk back to the squad car and asked the rookie to exit and learn. He held up the microphone as if he was talking to someone; but the radio was off, he refused to budge. I unlocked the door and dragged him out of the car, which he immediately reentered, and locked the door again.
After finishing the domestic, I drove around the block, opened the passenger door and kicked him out of the car. He was handed off to another officer, who also found him too cowardly to be a police officer. Somehow, before he was fired, he found a job on the Alaska State Police and quit, then moved up to Alaska.
The next coward was, like Peterson, an officer at the end of his career. I do not know if he was cowardly his entire career, or only became one when nearing his pension. I don’t care, whenever there was a call of a domestic, or shots fired, or any felony in progress, this veteran either had a flat tire, or simply did not show up to his call until several other units were already on the scene. After one incident, I called him the coward that he was, and went to our supervisor. Like Peterson, this officer retired rather than face the charges and be labeled the coward that he was. Like the first time, in the Air Force, someone else had to go into harm’s way because the coward would not.
The last cowardly act that occurred happened less than a year before I retired. I was riding with an officer who was just back on the job after having been shot in a gunfight. We were in the Gang Crimes Unit, which was the tip of the spear. We went into the most volatile areas, where gun shots were a daily event and gangs, drugs and crime was in the forefront. In this job, you knew that you were going to get into a gunfight or other violent confrontation on an almost daily basis.
The officer riding with me had not been a coward, I worked alongside him prior to his injury and knew he was a standup guy. He was shot when questioning a suspect, who pulled a gun and started shooting. In the gunfight, he was shot in the foot and lost his big toe. It took several operations, and replacement of the toe with another toe, in order for him to walk normally again. After several months of rehabilitation, he came back to work after almost a year off recuperating.
The night he acted cowardly was a typical night for us. We were driving through a housing project in one of the most dangerous places in America. As we approached a sharp curve in the road we heard gunshots, and a patrol officer call for help, shots were being fired at his car. We were less than a half block from the shooting scene. The other officer was driving, and instead of driving around the corner, he hit the brakes and froze.
I could not convince him to press the gas pedal, and simply exited the protection of the car and ran the half block to the gunfight. It was a complicated gunfight, that involved rival gangs, both north and south of me shooting at each other, and both shooting at the patrol car to the west. I found myself facing a gangbanger that I knew, who was armed with a .45, and engaged him.
As quickly as the gunfight began it ended with a final burst of gunfire, and the suspect across the street from me turning and running down an alley. He shot at me, I returned fire, and he ran down the alley, while shots still rang out from the gangbangers to the south of me. Another gang car arrived and those to the south vanished.
When I, and the two other officers from the newly arrived gang car trailed the suspect who went down the alley, we found a blood trail that led to the rear of the building he was shooting from, and up the stairs to the second floor. Here we had an armed standoff, which was only concluded when we forced entry into a bedroom using a fire department ladder to climb to the second floor and break open a window. In that room, we found the body of the suspect; the floor covered with his blood.
When the standoff was over, I spotted the coward for the first time since the gunfight began. I told our supervisor what had happened, and the officer was quietly transferred to an investigative position at the county jail where he investigates murders, stabbing, and rapes committed behind bars, never again in harm’s way.
That officer was frozen in fear, and let the fear control him. Every officer, from every department across the nation, knows fear. Being afraid is a good thing because it keeps you on you at the height of your abilities. Sometime that fear goes beyond fear, and turns to terror. I’ve been there too. Once I faced off against an armed bank robber and momentarily froze before turning a corner and confronting the armed man. I took a deep breath, and turned the corner. I was no less afraid than the officer who had been shot, or Deputy Scot Peterson at the school shooting in Florida, only I controlled my fear, not allowing it to control me. Thousands of officers go through the same fear daily and behave honorably.
I am not making this about me, every officer, across the nation faces the same fear and terror each and every day. All, but a very few, pass the test and behave in the manor that a police officer is supposed to, with honor, dignity, and pride. There are a very few Scot Peterson’s among the thousands of police officers in this country. Having been a police officer is one of the best things that I did with my life, and something that fills me with pride, until someone like Scot Peterson makes me ashamed.
17 people died because of Peterson’s cowardice, and his shame reflects on every police officer across the nation. There are no words that I can convey that will explain the level of disgust I feel for the cowardly act by a man who dishonors every police officer in this nation.
His shame is felt by every police officer in America. There is no excuse.