Editor’s Note: Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, is a professor in the department of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He is the author of “Cop in the Hood,” “In Defense of Flogging,” and “Greek Americans.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sworn police officers are not defined just by a uniform, gun or badge. What makes them different from other people dedicated to public safety is the oath. The sworn oath is not symbolic. It is both a sacrifice and a privilege. It is real and binding.
Brian Sicknick took an oath to uphold the Constitution in 2008. In doing so, and only after doing so, he became a United States Capitol Police officer. On January 6, he upheld his oath and gave his life defending the Constitution. His body lay in honor at the Capitol last month.
I took a similar oath in 1999. There was none of the pomp and circumstance of a police academy graduation or the tragic solemnity of an officer’s funeral.
Three of us were in a small windowless room in a Baltimore courthouse. Two of us signed our names in a log. The third, a woman seated at a desk, told us to raise our right hands. As we did so, she read some lines off a sheet of paper. I couldn’t hear all the words, but I knew upholding the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Maryland were part of the bargain. After about 10 seconds of monotone reading, she stopped, looked up, and said, “Say yes.” We did. We were now sworn police officers.
While the oath-taking may itself be anti-climactic (and drolly bureaucratic), its meaning is not lost on the police. I was honored to swear to defend the Constitution. I remain honored to have done so.
By taking the oath, police officers are obliged to risk their lives. While policing isn’t the only dangerous occupation, in most other jobs, things get deadly only when they go wrong. Police officers can do everything right and still be killed. Against both common sense and natural instinct, they run toward the gunfire and – more slowly and carefully – toward potential bombs. Officers don’t want to risk their lives. But it’s their job. Their duty.
As a mob invaded the Capitol to overturn a free and fair election, most in the building ran for safer places. It was the police – understaffed and woefully underprepared – who stood and fought and died. Their oath became literal.
Officer Sicknick, like all sworn officers, publicly professed his willingness to make this sacrifice. This is why we honor and remember them when they are killed in the line of duty. The honor is for the living as much as the dead.
It is not just that Officer Sicknick gave his life, it is what he represented in doing so. It is what we ask and demand of police, to put others and the Constitution above self. Capitol and DC police fought on January 6 to hold off a mob of insurrectionists. America and our Constitution were in jeopardy.
Had the mob gained quicker entry, had Officer Sicknick and his colleagues not fought so hard, the insurrection might have played out very differently. The police actually lost the battle; the Capitol was stormed. But they held off the mob and probably saved hundreds of lives. It is chilling to contemplate what could have happened in the Capitol if self-proclaimed “patriots” had reached lawmakers.
For most police officers, the oath can be an abstraction compared with the day-to-day world of answering calls and resolving petty disputes. But sometimes the call to sacrifice becomes terrifyingly real, as it did on January 6, in the screaming faces of a surging, violent mob.
Officer Sicknick, along with his fellow sworn officers, fought literally to defend the Constitution. In upholding their oath, they may have saved America. In that, there is nobility.
Rest in peace, Officer Sicknick.