Seventeen Los Angeles police officers, including those involved in a 2008 hostage rescue attempt in which a SWAT officer was killed, received the department's highest honor for bravery in the line of duty Thursday.
The Medal of Valor is bestowed on a handful of the LAPD's nearly 10,000 officers each year for "bravery or heroism above and beyond the normal demands of police service."
At a luncheon ceremony, Chief Charlie Beck spoke of the importance of recognizing such acts of bravery. "There is a social contract we make with police officers…and that social contract goes like this: If you are willing to risk your life for me, if you are willing to lay down your life in support of me and my family, then I will honor you and I will also stand behind you."
Beck's voice choked with emotion when he mentioned R.J. Cottle, an LAPD officer and U.S. Marine, who was recently killed while serving in Afghanistan, and Randal Simmons, the fallen SWAT officer. "While we celebrate this heroism, we are reminded that it is not free," he said. Cottle was not one of the recipients of the medal, but was remembered with Simmons in a video tribute.
Three officers were recognized for their efforts to pull victims from burning vehicles in freeway crashes. In one crash, Officer Steven Beumer's uniform caught fire as he strained to free a driver from a car filled with smoke and flame. The 10-year veteran and Officer Alonso Menchaca dragged the man to safety moments before the car exploded.
Similarly, in a second accident, Officer Eric Hammerschmitt freed a badly burned man from a car. He was pulled away from the flames by on-lookers for his own safety while unsuccessfully trying to save the man's teenage daughter. The father later died of his injuries.
The rest of the ceremony turned on one of the department's more traumatic recent events: the 2008 standoff between officers from the elite SWAT unit and a 20-year-old gunman who had killed his father and brother.
Believing there were hostages in the San Fernando Valley house where the shooter had barricaded himself, a pair of officers distracted him through a window and drew his fire as 10 others burst into the home in a rescue attempt. In the ensuing firefight, Simmons and his partner, James Veenstra, were hit. Veenstra was shot in the face, but survived. Two officers from the LAPD's West Valley Division who participated in the chaotic scene were also honored.
Along with Simmons and Veenstra, the officers awarded medals for their role in the shootout were: David Keortge, Thomas Chinappi, German Hurtado, Floyd Curry, Anthony Samuelson, Michael Barker, Charles Buttitta, Steven Scallon, Michael Odle, George Ryan, Mark Mireles and Bonnie Lehigh.
The audience rose to its feet in applause as Simmons' wife, daughter and son walked to the stage to receive his medal. Beck draped it over the young man's neck and embraced him.