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A supply of courage


October 27, 2021
By Tom Wetzel and Denise DeBiase

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Courage is defined as “a person’s ability to do something that frightens them”.

The day a man or woman is sworn in as a peace officer, they know that they have agreed to risk their lives to protect and serve others, every day. Most will feel pretty confident when they first don their bullet proof vest and tighten a duty belt around their waist that includes a gun, extra bullets, a portable radio, handcuffs, and possibly an electronic control device and pepper spray. Some will have a tourniquet attached somewhere on their uniform in case they have to control blood flow if an officer is shot in the leg or arm. These are all important things to help keep an officer safe, but what they need next doesn’t have a tangible form or definable shape, but it is vital to survive as well as get the job done.

That invisible stuff is called courage, and cops must muster it on a regular basis, sometimes without any time to prepare. It is important to understand that an officer can be “scared to death” but still draw upon their courage when needed, and that courage can take all different shapes throughout an officer’s career.

The unique thing about police work is that no two shifts are alike. Officers basically suit up and then go out into the community to “see what happens”. That initial uncertainty will quickly be replaced with risky calls for service or encounters with dangerous people and situations. A traffic stop for a speeding vehicle could change into a shootout with armed men. A seemingly gentle person in a mental health crisis could suddenly change into a violent encounter, putting the officer in great jeopardy. A search for a wanted person in a dark building or abandoned home could get dicey very quickly. A high-speed pursuit is just one blown tire away from disaster.

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“Under Extreme stress, officers encounter physical and psychological changes that they cannot control … Despite all this, they will somehow find a way to trudge forward, and courage certainly plays a part.”

You can be sure there are plenty of sweaty palms, but that is just the beginning. Under extreme stress, officers encounter physical and psychological changes that they cannot control, such as tunnel vision and changes of blood flow to major organs. Despite all this, they will somehow find a way to trudge forward, and courage certainly plays a part. Sometimes they have time to assess and will make decisions that are prudent, such as a tactical retreat until they have more reinforcements. That, too, is courage; to know when to act or when not to.

There are other types of situations which will present themselves to an officer that will also require a form of courage. One example is going to work a 12-hour shift being physically exhausted after having worked two previous days of 12-hour shifts. Then add into this mix that an officer could have small children at home who don’t let them sleep adequately or regularly. While running on fumes, the officer is keenly aware that they may be involved in physical encounters on that shift where multiple people may resist arrest, or the officer could become involved in a deadly force encounter.

Despite knowing these risks ahead of time, that officer will still suit up and respond to the call of duty. All of these types of courageous decisions are made day after day, week after week and year after year until the point of retirement.

The decision to become a cop takes guts in and of itself, especially today’s society where officers face a heightened level of scrutiny. It is impressive that young men and women still desire to put on a uniform and keep the peace despite the risks. Apparently, there is still a supply of courage out there and we are all safer for it.


Tom Wetzel is the Chief of Police in Richmond Heights, Ohio, a Northeast Ohio suburban Police Lieutenant and former SWAT Commander. He is also a certified law enforcement executive, adjunct professor in community policing and internationally published author on police topics.

Lt. Denise DeBiase has been a member of the Richmond Heights Police Department in Ohio for over 26 years and is currently serving as the executive officer. She is a Certified Law Enforcement Executive in the state, former DARE, bike patrol, crime prevention, and juvenile diversion officer, and detective.


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