Ofc. Amy Caprio and the debt we can never repay

How often does a police officer respond to a call of a suspicious vehicle on a nondescript suburban street like Linwen Way in Nottingham, as Baltimore County Police Ofc. Amy Caprio did on Monday afternoon? A hundred times a day? A thousand? On this occasion, the consequences were devastating. The four-year veteran of the Baltimore County Police Department was pronounced dead by mid-afternoon at nearby Franklin Square Hospital. “Traumatic injuries,” was how her colleagues would describe the end result of her encounter with a Jeep Wrangler and a driver who refused to obey her commands.

Much more will be known in the days ahead about that awful moment, about the suspects who have been arrested in her death, about how hundreds of children were trapped in their schools and neighbors stuck in their homes as police rushed in to investigate and track down the suspects, and about Officer Caprio and her service to the community. But enough is known now to recognize a great loss — and a great debt that can never be fully repaid. A line-of-duty death of a police officer is a catastrophic moment not just for her family and friends, not only for her colleagues and fellow law enforcement officials but for everyone who lives in Baltimore County and beyond.

That’s because, at the most basic level, officers like Amy Caprio are the “thin blue line” that separates order from anarchy. The day we treat the loss of an officer as a routine casualty, the day we dismiss such an ultimate sacrifice as “well, she knew the risks when she took the job,” is the day we will have a society undeserving of such a noble protector. Amy Caprio died a hero. Let us make no mistake about that.

Officer Caprio died protecting and serving her community, working to make Baltimore County a better, safer place to live and work. Hers was a difficult, often thankless job, but also one of the most important jobs imagineable. No doubt Amy Caprio did not show up for work Monday expecting that day to be her last, though she knew it was possible — as all officers do. Yet she went on that fateful call anyway.

How do you thank someone for their service like that? How do you thank their family and friends? How do you thank her colleagues who take the same risks on every shift? There are no words. But we should not stop trying. That we can all go home tonight under the aegis of men and women like Amy Caprio is a circumstance we must never take for granted.

In recent years, it has become commonplace to question the actions of police officers, perhaps more so than people did a generation or two ago. Sometimes it’s justified, and sometimes it’s not. We live in an era when technology can capture police-civilian encounters in a way that was previously unheard of. We have become more closely attuned to disparities in our criminal justice system. We are demanding more from officers, not just the ability to investigate criminal activity, not just to make arrests, but to be peacemakers, to be social workers, to deal with the mentally ill.

In the Baltimore area we have become particularly attuned to disparity in law enforcement in the wake of the Freddie Gray case, to prison systems overloaded with African American men, to how prejudice can adversely influence policing. Thankfully, Baltimore County has not experienced the same level of police-community tensions and turmoil as Baltimore City has, but as the late county executive Kevin Kamenetz noted, it’s not immune to them. Before his death this month, he pushed the department to become more diverse by recruiting more women and minorities, and against the advice of a panel of county law enforcement officials, he insisted on equipping officers with body cameras — one of which may now provide crucial evidence about Officer Caprio’s killing.

This is a moment when Baltimore County could really use that kind of leadership. The community needs to work through its grief over Officer Caprio’s loss, and it needs to do so without giving over to anger and stereotyping. Four teens have been arrested in connection with her death, the first of whom is a 16-year-old from a Baltimore City public housing project who police say had been engaged in a burglary. Some of the conversation online has already gotten ugly, and that does nothing either to honor Officer Caprio’s sacrifice or to see justice done in this case. She confronted a perilous situation with courage and professionalism. Let us all do the same.

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