What makes a real hero in law enforcement?

Every day, police officers commit “upstream” heroic acts – here’s why that matters

Sociologists and behaviorists are frequently interested in how we psychologically attribute character traits to one another. One such area of empirical study is the attribution of heroism.

The status of hero is achieved not only through action, but also through the perspective of others. In other words, if one accomplishes the most heroic act, yet nobody knows about it, he or she is not yet a hero (well, perhaps to oneself). It is through the marriage of heroic action, plus the witnessing of it, plus the hero attribution by another, that one "becomes" a hero. So, being a hero is really a very dependent condition.

That's one version, at least. It gets a bit more unwieldy because as far as some are concerned, heroism can be imputed to individuals simply because they belong to a certain sector of society. For people who think this way, they don't need to see a heroic act in order to bestow the title. For example, law enforcement is a career that is frequently linked with the word "hero." Some think that all cops, for the selfless acts they are willing to do, are de facto heroes. The fact that cops are willing to lay down their lives is a selfless condition, and this condition obviates the need for a heroic act.

The status of hero is achieved not only through action, but also through the perspective of others.
The status of hero is achieved not only through action, but also through the perspective of others. (Photo/PoliceOne)

It’s good that a part of society is willing to revere its selfless servants this way. Even so, law enforcement is not lacking for daily heroic acts. Rather, what’s lacking is the observation of these acts.

Most heroic acts in law enforcement go unnoticed

Most day-to-day heroic acts in law enforcement occur without the benefit of observation. While putting a sudden end to a high-profile, sensationalized violent act gets noticed (and attributed), our day-to-day work, when done well, is full of unnoticed heroics that have equal, if not greater, consequence.

This is true not only because of the unheralded crime-stopping that you do, but also (and probably more significantly) because of the crime preventing you do.

The cop who focuses on the career criminals on his beat is a life changer. For example, by making "lesser" parole violation busts, you forever change the life histories of many certain-to-be-next victims. A detective who doesn't let a child molester's defenses wear him out and stays in the interview room for those extra hours to get a confession has no doubt prevented more molestations. Like a fig tree naturally bears figs, career criminals, pedophiles and other habitual crooks naturally bear their own fruits. Victims are what they make. It's their nature, and they don't stop by themselves. Putting career criminals, pedophiles and other habitual crooks away means stopping worse crimes before they start, and thereby changing untold lives forever.

Good police work changes history

This type of police work is some of the most valuable we can do. For what it does for individuals who would have otherwise been victims, and for society as a whole, preventing the next sensational armed robbery or horrific sex crime is even more valuable than ending one in progress. This type of work literally changes history, and it's one of the reasons this job is so great. By doing our daily jobs well, we are unwittingly committing “upstream” heroic acts. Just because they are never noticed or attributed, that doesn't lessen their effect or value. Indeed, the fact that such acts are unattributed makes them even more noble.

Dealing with crisis day after day and year after year can numb us to the value of our role. It can be better appreciated if you personalize it: If somebody's good upstream work, though you never knew about it, directly prevented a life-changing tragedy within your family, what benefit ("value") would that act have to you and your family for the rest of your lives? When you do your job well, you are directly having that effect on untold others. Not knowing the specific “who's" or "what's" has nothing to do with the actual value of these acts. They truly are heroic accomplishments, sans the attribution.

As our careers advance, we tend to downplay the nobility, honor, value and selflessness of our day-to-day work. Or, because of discouragement, becoming comfortable, or because of a loss of purpose, we can even recede from this good and noble fight. But in doing so, we're yielding to the steady decline in cultural values, where there are fewer and fewer moral heroes of any type. By giving in, we're actually adding to that decline.

Hero status may never come your way. Yet you add to your stature and reveal your character when you remain willing to anonymously strive selflessly for the sake of those you'll never know. In doing your best, you are giving real people their best hope for a better destiny. So resolve to do your best and press on.

Believe in your role in society, and work that way.

As a hero.

NEXT: 50 states, 50 police heroes: How cops made an impact in 2021

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