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LAPD honors officers for their bravery and, for the first time, their restraint

LAPD Awards (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Police Officer Danielle Lopez and her partner were driving to a South L.A. jail when they spotted a man in the middle of the street pointing an assault rifle at other cars.

The officers jumped out and drew their guns.

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"Drop the gun!" Lopez remembers shouting at the man. "Drop the gun!"

It was a tense moment, a potentially life-or-death scenario that police train for but hope to avoid: one that could have ended in gunfire.

Instead, Lopez and her partner were able to persuade the man to drop the rifle and step away, arresting him without firing a single bullet. After taking him into custody, the officers realized that the gun he was carrying was, in fact, a fake.

On Thursday, Lopez and Officer Bryan Waggener were recognized for their judgment and restraint, joining a group of 25 officers who became the LAPD's first recipients of a new award: the Preservation of Life medal.

The LAPD has long recognized officers for heroic acts, bestowing the department's highest honor — the Medal of Valor — upon those who have pulled people from fiery car crashes or shielded fellow officers during shootouts.

But the Preservation of Life medal honors officers who go above and beyond normal police work to avoid using deadly force during dangerous encounters.

Six months after her confrontation with the rifle-wielding man, Lopez said Thursday that she was honored to receive the award but felt she was simply doing what she was trained to do.

"We put on the uniform, go out there and in some situations like this, it's part of our job," Lopez said after the ceremony, the new medal pinned to her uniform.

The new award marks a relatively novel approach by the LAPD, reflecting an increasing emphasis within policing on so-called "de-escalation" strategies aimed at defusing tense encounters with the public amid a heated national debate over how officers use force.

The LAPD is one of only a handful of agencies nationwide that have such an award. Police in Camden, N.J., have adopted a similar recognition. So too has the Philadelphia Police Department, which created a Medal of Tactical De-escalation in December and has since handed out 44 of the awards, according to an agency spokesman.

The LAPD is held in special regard, so for them to put this award at the same level as the Medal of Valor sends a huge message.


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Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank focused on law enforcement issues, said other departments could follow suit.

"The LAPD is held in special regard, so for them to put this award at the same level as the Medal of Valor sends a huge message to the entire policing profession," he said.

But the award has stirred some controversy. The union representing rank-and-file officers blasted the medal when the honor was created last fall, saying it was a "terrible idea" that prioritized "the lives of suspected criminals over the lives of LAPD officers."

The concern, the union said, was that officers would second-guess themselves during dangerous encounters if they felt pressured to avoid using force because of the award.

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That stance appeared to have softened after Thursday's ceremony for at least one of the union's directors. Jerretta Sandoz, the union's vice president, said that although officer safety is always a priority, those who received the Preservation of Life award displayed "very, very heroic acts."

"Those stories that I heard today, it took tremendous courage to do their job," she said. "It made me proud to be a police officer."

Hundreds of officers packed the ballroom of a downtown L.A. hotel for the ceremony and a lunch, joined by their families, police commissioners, the mayor and a long list of city officials. It was a solemn event, the room falling silent as the scenarios each officer faced were described.

Officer Vincent Ortiz was off duty, driving along the 5 Freeway in February, when he saw a man trapped inside a sport utility vehicle that had been involved in a fiery car crash. Ortiz pulled the man from the burning wreck, moments before another vehicle involved in the crash exploded nearby. He received the Medal of Valor.

In August 2014, a gunman in an SUV opened fire on officers in South L.A. During a mile-long rolling gun battle, a veteran SWAT officer was seriously wounded in his leg and pulled to safety by his colleagues. Nearly a dozen officers received the Medal of Valor for their actions during that encounter. The injured officer, Nelson Fong, returned to SWAT duty a day before Thursday's ceremony.

When Officer Ericandrew Avendano was confronted in February 2015 by a man with an ax, he tried to talk the man into dropping the weapon as he waited for other officers to arrive, believing the man was mentally ill or had been using drugs. Police ended up shooting the armed man with less-lethal beanbag rounds, subduing him without resorting to deadly force. Avendano was the first LAPD officer pinned with the new Preservation of Life medal.

The awards, Beck said, were for officers who jeopardized their own safety for someone else — "many times people they didn't know."

"There can be no finer definition of hero," Beck told the crowd. "There can be no better example of a Los Angeles police officer."

Officer Francisco Rubio left the ceremony with three awards: the Medal of Valor, the Preservation of Life and the Purple Heart, given to officers killed or seriously injured.

In 2011, when Rubio had been on the job about five years, he and his partner responded to a fight at a party. As the officers were questioning people outside, Rubio saw headlights fast approaching. He grabbed his partner's collar and yelled for other officers to get out of the way. A car barreled toward them, slamming into a nearby police cruiser that knocked Rubio 15 feet through the air into a fence and some brush.

As he drifted in and out of consciousness, Rubio recalled, he couldn't feel anything from his neck down. He struggled to breathe. He thought he was going to die.

"Then the fight kicked in," he recalled Thursday.

Rubio survived, taking six months off work to recover from brain and other injuries. He now calls the crash a humbling experience.

"It was someone's way of saying, 'Frank, you're not bulletproof. You need to slow down a little and take your time before getting into things,'" he said.

In October, Rubio responded to a report of a man with a gun in the San Fernando Valley. When he and his partner arrived, Rubio saw a man pointing a gun at himself while other LAPD officers were across the street with their own guns drawn.

Rubio pulled his car up between the man and the officers to protect his colleagues, giving them protection and more time to decide how to resolve the standoff. Eventually, officers were able to subdue the gunman by shooting him with a less-lethal beanbag shotgun.

Rubio recalled Thursday that he was surprised when he learned he would receive the Preservation of Life award for his actions.

"I was shocked," he said. "For what? For doing my job? Yes, that's not a problem."

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