One took on a man wielding a rifle, seven others engaged in a firefight with men who had bragged about plans to kill cops, and 13 more faced similar life-threatening encounters.
The officers all said they were just doing their jobs.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Council members and top Los Angeles Police Department brass joined about 800 law enforcement personnel and others at a ceremony honoring this year's recipients of the LAPD's Medal of Valor. It is the agency's highest honor and one reserved for acts of bravery in the line of duty.
Villaraigosa called the 21 officers being honored "everyday heroes who, without hesitation and in the face of great danger, reached out with a hand of assistance in a way we have to celebrate."
"They have demonstrated a level of selflessness that you cannot learn from any training manual," he told the luncheon crowd gathered in a Hollywood ballroom.
The medals were bestowed on the officers for their actions in seven harrowing incidents in recent years.
On a September evening four years ago, Scott Burkett, an officer assigned to the LAPD's Southeast Division, responded to a domestic violence call with his partner. While witnesses were being interviewed, several gunshots rang out nearby. Burkett ran toward the gunfire, seeing a woman cowering in the street next to a man's lifeless body. Taking cover behind a parked car, Burkett traded fire with the shooter, who was driving toward him and taking aim with an AK-47 assault rifle. The man sped off but was apprehended shortly afterward.
"I guess it's just in our blood; it's in our training," Burkett said in a videotaped interview that was played for the audience as he stood at attention on stage.
Three officers were recognized for their roles in surrounding and shooting an armed man who led police on a high-speed chase and took a hostage at the Hustler Casino in Gardena.
Partners Joel Flores and Steve Chung stepped over downed power lines to pull out a trapped, badly injured teenager from a car he had crashed into a telephone pole.
Police Chief William J. Bratton challenged those in the audience to put themselves in the officers' place. "We get to think, 'Could I have done that? Would I have done that?' Each of us privileged to wear this badge [believes] we would. Well, they did."
Many of the officers attributed their actions, at least in part, to the trust they have in their partners. As one honoree said, "I know he's got my back and I have his."
In recalling the decisive, chaotic moments, almost all of the officers remembered a strange sense of time. For some, brief encounters seemed to last for hours, while for others, time sped up.
"I didn't hear the chaos; I didn't hear the screaming," said Officer Brent Riederich, of the face-off in the casino. "I just heard my partner."
Not all of the episodes ended happily. Bratton draped medals around the necks of Officers Carlos Quintero and Ivan Vintamilla, partners who were repulsed by searing flames that had trapped a man inside a motor home. The two broke a back window and, reaching into the fire, struggled to pull the man to safety. Sadly, they were too late, and flames consumed the man.
"I would have wanted someone to do the same thing for me, for my family," Quintero said. "It's just the right thing to do, the human thing to do. I feel humbled and honored to be receiving this award. I just wish the result could have been different."