At the District Attorney’s Office, we have a unique perspective on the ways that first responders hold our community together every day. In reviewing evidence for trials, we hear the panicked voices of 9-1-1 callers desperately crying out for help. We see photographs and videos of violent crime scenes, the remnants of DUI fatality crashes, and in our review of evidence, we see countless heroic efforts performed by first responders amidst horrific circumstances.
Our role, however, is secondary – it often occurs after first responders are called in to address emergencies that even well-meaning members of the community would want nothing to do with.
Night after night, while many of us sleep safely at home, it is our first responders who clean up the carnage left upon our highways by drunk drivers. When another senseless shooting occurs over idiotic gang rivalries, it is our first responders who respond to tend to the victims and bystanders caught in the crossfire. And when an active shooter sets a course to inflict as much indiscriminate murder and chaos as possible, it is our first responders who are expected and ordered to race to the scene and put a stop to the violence at any cost.
Many view incidents of violence and tragedy as isolated events – something you read or hear about in a news article, but that you quickly forget if not directly impacted. For first responders, these events are daily occurrences experienced firsthand, and each one is a part of what can seem to be a relentless tide of despair and crime. This constant exposure to tragedy and risk takes a toll on first responders that is impossible to fully appreciate, and which comes with immeasurable burdens and consequences for those who choose to protect and serve our community.
I’ve had the pleasure this year of speaking with a young man, fresh out of service to his country in the Army, who has chosen to go through the local police academy and embark upon a career of public service as a peace officer. I worry about the challenges he will face, as the sentiment of some in our country has become very quick to condemn split-second decisions required of first responders. I worry about him because any first responder must make life-altering decisions for the benefit of the community at a moment’s notice and then risk public vilification before being afforded the due process that the law demands. While I worry for him, and for all of our first responders, I share the sentiments of unending gratitude expressed by many in our community for those who choose this increasingly difficult area of public service.
It is startling to me, the actions of some – not all – protestors who claim issues of systemic racism and excessive force infect every police officer. While claiming excessive force is systemic, some have spat upon, assaulted, thrown rocks, bricks and incendiaries at men and women in uniform for which they have no basis to accuse of any wrongdoing. Why is it that, night after night, protestors feel empowered to openly commit assaults upon police officers tasked with keeping the peace? The answer, ironically, is that even the most violent protestors innately recognize that the vast majority of officers are professionals and will not respond to even criminal assaults upon them with unreasonable force.
When policy changes are considered, policy makers must recognize the essential, often thankless role first responders play in keeping society functional in even the darkest of times. When many of us were permitted – ordered, even – to “stay at home” amidst the pandemic, first responders held the line to keep ambulances, police and fire services fully operational. Facing legislative changes that favor criminals, plummeting budgets and a worldwide pandemic, first responders continue to serve. Despite all the challenges that come with being a first responder in today’s political climate, extremely dedicated men and women continue to answer the call for public service.
To me, that’s extraordinary, and worthy of our thanks and gratitude.
Cynthia Zimmer is the Kern County District Attorney.