It’s wrong to say that Deputy Joseph Tortorella’s bravery last spring is what citizens have a right to expect from cops. Citizens have a right to expect what is, on most days, the routine, sometimes confrontational business of police work. What they get, though, can be much more, and much more is what Tortorella gave.
The Niagara County sheriff’s deputy put his life at risk on April 17, 2015, in order to protect those of students and teachers in a nearby school. And he ended up saving the lives of two people who had been shot by their son, a young man who also fired at Tortorella, lodging a round in the deputy’s bulletproof vest.
For that extraordinary bravery, Tortorella has been justly praised, last week by no one less than the president of the United States. On Monday, President Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Valor, the nation’s top award for law enforcement officers, around his neck. It was richly deserved by Tortorella and 12 other law enforcement officers who were honored for, Obama said, “rising up beyond the call of duty, saving the lives of people they didn’t know.”
He added, “If it had not been for their bravery, it’s likely we would have lost a lot of people.”
Police officers most often make news when a few disregard the laws they are sworn to uphold. The truth is that not every officer is called upon to put his life so plainly on the line. But, as Tortorella observed, it is also true that most would. Most cops take on their line of work because they want to make a difference. But when called upon, they follow through, summoning the courage to confront people bent on violence, people who sometimes carry guns they are eager to use.
Where does that kind of courage come from? Some of it is training, to be sure, and some is a reflection of who these men and women are. For Tortorella, it was that and more: As he confronted Duane A. Bores Jr. in Wheatfield, they were perilously near Errick Road Elementary School, where Tortorella’s wife was a teacher and where two of his young children were attending classes. This was a crisis multiplied.
Bores had pulled a gun on Tortorella outside his parents’ home. The young man had already drawn blood; unknown to the deputy, he had shot his parents. Despite Tortorella’s warning, Bores fired repeatedly at the officer, striking his protective vest and peeling bark from the tree Tortorella was using for protection.
When the gunman moved toward the back of the house and toward the school, Tortorella positioned himself between the buildings. He had already radioed to order the school locked down. His wife, Erica, and son Sam, 9, soon began to worry as the reality of what was happening became clear.
It ended violently, but probably as well as could have been hoped, under the circumstances. The younger Bores killed himself. His parents, Duane and Cynthia, recovered from their wounds. Tortorella was uninjured and soon reunited with his grateful family.
But it wasn’t over. The aftermath of the shooting has left the deputy anxious. He’s won many awards for his bravery and, after a month off work, took a desk job – for four days. Then he asked to return to his patrol car. But his mind recycles the images – what happened that day and, no doubt, what could have happened. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” he said. “I keep replaying it in my head. It’s difficult at times.”
So, the bravery continues. It’s an aspect of police work that most civilians probably don’t think about much. Cops are trained and, over the years, gain experience. They learn how to deal with dangerous situations. But they are, like all of us, only human. Traumatic events have an afterlife and they can take time to heal.
Tortorella’s actions that day richly deserve the thanks of the community and the attention from the president. He is emblematic of what citizens hope to see in their law enforcement officers and what, in fact, citizens regularly see when cops are called to their most dangerous duties.