Women in Policing: How It Feels to Be a Reluctant Hero

Mar 25, 2022

  • Women in law enforcement face continuing doubts about their ability to be as brave, competent, and dedicated as their male counterparts.
  • How we respond in a life-threatening crisis may be hard to predict. One woman may have exceeded expectations.
  • Being hailed as a public hero isn’t enough, trauma victims may require more.
  • Even when the outcome is good, traumatic experiences can cause psychological distress.

March is Women’s History Month. Rather than looking back on the history of women in law enforcement, I want to focus on one woman who is making history right now. On March 6, 2022, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Toni Schuck drove her patrol SUV directly in the path of a drunken motorist. The motorist had evaded several barriers and was speeding unimpeded toward 7,000 runners participating in a charity race across the Sunshine Skyway. With no other means of stopping the driver, Schuck, 47, a twenty-six-year law enforcement veteran and mother of two, felt herself to be “the last line of defense.”

Four years ago, I posted about cowardice, caution, and critical incident stress in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre. My point: Despite what we think we will do in a crisis, the way we behave may be different from the way we had once hoped. Real heroes aren’t fearless, they overcome fear. Trooper Schuck didn’t want to do what she did. She wasn’t trained to block a speeding vehicle head-on. Nor had she ever experienced an incident where she directly and knowingly put her own life on the line to protect others. She did it because she “had to.” Protecting others is her job.

Her statement to the press was: “If not me, then who?” This made me think of a quote by the ancient Jewish scholar and religious leader, Hillel. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

I encourage you to watch Trooper Shuck’s press conference. Her facial injuries are still visible. Notice how she doesn’t try to suppress her emotions or put on a brave face. To me, her honesty is another gift. Too many first responders have a suck-it-up mentality, fearful that letting their feelings out will make them look weak, not only to others but to themselves. The reasons for this range from individual histories, the way we are socialized, and the culture of policing.

Trooper Schuck displays many of the common traits of a traumatic experience. The pre-incident thought—almost like wishful thinking—that the drunken driver was going to stop. Her shock when reality takes over. The flood of emotions when triggered by the memory of her near-death experience. Her difficulty sleeping through the night. The repeated what-ifs and re-plays of the incident in the days after.

Trooper Shuck has been lauded as a hero. A well-deserved title that often doesn’t rest well with law enforcement officers. She’s been given the key to the city of Bradenton and Manatee County has proclaimed March 22 as Trooper Toni Schuck Day. She appears grateful for the acknowledgment. But I know from counseling cops and other first responders that such massive attention has its costs. I hope she gets the support she needs from her friends, family, and co-workers. I hope she gets rest and her privacy is restored. If she needs it, I hope she gets culturally competent professional help. Whatever is in her future, I wish this brave woman all the best.


Subscribe to the Blog

Ellen addresses the world of writing and psychology. Don’t miss a single post.

Sign up for my newsletter: