By Eric P. Zahren, Executive Director
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission
Gentlemen, we live in a heroic age. Andrew Carnegie’s Deed of Trust establishing the Hero Fund in 1904 opens with those words.
If Carnegie’s age was indeed heroic—perhaps formed, in part, by the plethora of dangers confronting early 20th century life during the boom of the industrial age that set the stage for heroic intervention—then one could argue that ours is heroic as well. The threat of violence that has encroached upon 21st century society is often met by heroic actors.
On the front lines of society in any age, and in our own perhaps more than ever, are the men and women who wear the badge. In that position, police officers and other first responders hold a unique and recurring role in relation to heroism as defined for Carnegie’s purposes. In almost every heroic act considered by the Hero Fund, there is the presence of a police officer, whose involvement falls into one or more of three categories.
First, the officer plays a major role in the Commission’s efforts to establish the facts of the case under consideration. Officers are often witnesses to the rescue, or, more likely, they investigate the event that threatened the victim for purposes of filing incident or investigative reports. In this context, the Hero Fund’s own investigators avail themselves of the police reports and seek to interview officers and supervisors for additional data in support of the heroic act. Those officers or other department members who know of the Hero Fund know also that their nominations of acts of heroism for consideration are very much welcomed by the Commission. On occasion, an officer or a department volunteers their services in presenting the medal to the awardees.
Second, there are the cases where civilians come to the aid of police officers, which sheds new light on the often debated and potentially misleading media reporting and resulting public perceptions of the current state of police/community relations. It is not unusual for the Commission to investigate and recognize civilians who find themselves witnesses to attacks on police officers and then risk their own lives to intervene. Though the reactions of officers and departments to these incidents can range from celebrated formal recognition of the rescuer to a misplaced sense of embarrassment or even denial, civilian engagement of the type should be seen for what it is, the ultimate form of community support for the work of police officers. Is it not worthy of recognition when ordinary civilians share the inherent risks of police officers in extreme circumstances?
Third, there are police officers and first responders whose own lifesaving actions are considered for recognition by the Commission. Carnegie’s vision was to honor civilian heroism in all of its forms, much as the military provides honors for its members. Active members of the military are therefore exempt from award consideration, but the Commission has long considered heroic acts by law enforcement officers and other first responders as eligible—provided that the actions are clearly “above and beyond” the line of duty. In making the call, the Commission considers a number of factors, including the officer’s training, readily available equipment and backup, and job expectations. Was the officer on duty or off? Was he or she within his or her department’s jurisdiction or in another geographical area? Crucial to a determination in such cases is the word of the officer’s supervisor regarding departmental expectations of an officer under the figuring circumstances.
Undeniably, police and other public safety departments play an integral role in the work of the Hero Fund by identifying heroic acts and establishing the facts of each case brought to its attention. The decision to award or not is, in all cases, a difficult one. Cases involving police officers, firefighters, and emergency personnel as rescuers are especially so, and often excruciating when they involve the act-related death or disability of the responding public safety officer. The Commission’s decision not to make the award should never be interpreted as a judgment against the heroic merits of the officer’s actions, as it is understood that the men and women who are sworn to protect us routinely exhibit courage, bravery, and, yes, heroism, in the course of their duties. And in so doing, they have contributed to each and every “heroic age.” That is abundantly clear to those of us who serve and protect Carnegie’s vision.