The Right Stuff

Lessons of pioneering space exploration for contemporary law enforcement

By R.K. Miller  |   Feb 11, 2019

In 2016, John Glenn left this Earth for his third and last time. As a kid growing up, I was fascinated by our country’s original seven Mercury astronauts who rocketed into the skies. Glenn was a major player before, during and after his first space mission. Some years after his historic orbital flight, he returned to the vastness on the space shuttle.

To this day, one of my favorite movies is The Right Stuff. It tells the story of eight men: Glenn and his six astronaut colleagues, as well as the test pilot who helped pave the way, Chuck Yeager.  Recently I slid The Right Stuff DVD into the box and sat back to enjoy their story—or at least Hollywood’s interpretation—once again.

Afterwards, my thoughts turned as they often do, to law enforcement in today’s world. There are truths which apply equally to the men and women who have risked their lives in outer space and the police officers who provide some semblance of sanity back here on Earth. Here they are.

Lessons for Response

Pushing “the outer edge of the envelope”: There’s a good chance you have heard this phrase before. It basically focuses on steps that go right up to or even beyond existing limits and standards. For test pilots, it refers to operating a jet fighter at or past defined limits in order to understand its performance “envelope.” One of the astronauts identified this process as “the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”   

While tradition and culture play a big role in police work, we all have to recognize the need for that “next level.” The pushing the envelope approach has a ton of different applications: Officer safety, tactics, administrative, as well as who we hire and work with. Made long before Maverick and Goose launched onto the big screen, The Right Stuff is a Mach-3 Alpha male story. For the most part, so was police work when I first came on the job in 1976. Today, both the military and law enforcement have gone beyond the limits of the past to the inclusion now of very good women. In more and more cases, they have risen to well-deserved leadership positions. 

In another sense, the concept of a police officer stepping forward, taking charge and making sound decisions fits here. One of the biggest challenges comes with our lethal force “envelope.” While our profession (and you and I specifically) continues efforts towards new tactics, technology, and training that will minimize lethal force use, the reality is that this will always be with us. Unless you are totally disconnected from the world, this fact is pretty evident.

While part of this formula rests with administrators, academics and scientists, seasoned street cops can be great innovators in their own right. New techniques and strategies developed from time on the streets—rather than just by a government think tank or manufacturer’s R & D engineers—are out there, perhaps within your reach. 

The more we do to minimize use of lethal force without jeopardy to us and others is in keeping with pushing the outer edge of this deadly envelope. I’m a realist. I know that due to a suspect’s actions, there will always be times where no other option exists than use of that ultimate power to stop violent behavior. But until the day when we can look at each other and agree to “phasers on stun,” our focus on this goal has to continue.   

“Who’s the best pilot you ever did see?” This is a signature phrase from The Right Stuff. The movie attributes it to Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, another of the original seven astronauts. In truth, he may have “borrowed” it from some other unknown fighter jock. A slight modification gives us “Who’s the best street cop you ever did see?” I hope your answer—based on reality and not ego—is that you are. 

But are you?    

Like most folks out there, I worked with some great cops and others, quite frankly, were slugs. One of the finest in my opinion is Mike Reilly. He was born to be a street cop but he didn’t stop there. He evolved into a great detective. After retiring from Huntington Beach P.D. he became an investigator with the Orange Co. District Attorney’s Office. Regardless of the assignment, if you are a crook and Mike is after you, your days of freedom are rapidly diminishing. His tenacity and investigative creativity often leads to felons ending up with a view from inside Pelican Bay State Prison or other similar criminal institutions. 

Our profession is under a level of scrutiny and attack that I have not seen before. One way to counter this is through good police work every day trying to be a top cop like Reilly. A commitment to this goal will go a long way towards protecting our profession from unjustified and constant criticism.

“The Air Force never trains women how to be Air Force wives.” In the movie, Chuck Yeager’s wife voices this reality after another test pilot has died at the controls of an experimental jet. Translating this into the cop world, it is equally true that the amount of work done and advice given to help a spouse deal with the role of “domestic watch commander” is often seriously lacking. The varying hours and days off are coupled with the hidden—but sometimes the very real and raw—fact that bad experiences and challenges come with the job. Don’t forget that this is a tough prospect for those who are at your side more than anyone else. In their own way, the word “heroic” may be applicable to these folks in your life just as much as we use it for courageous efforts on the streets.

The Fraternity: Gordon Cooper once said that the original seven astronauts constituted a “fraternity that has no equal.” With all due respect to an American hero, this quote also applies to most police officers. While “fraternity” normally applies to an all-male setting, here I mean it more generically. Like the original astronauts, membership in this fraternity requires our best effort. Right now, good men and women are doing just that to help shepherd America through difficult and violent times. I know the challenges today are often unfair and frustrating.  But if you have that “right stuff,” that commitment to police work, then you know what your fellow officers and America expect of you.

Conclusion

The movie concludes with Cooper rocketing into space, doing the job he was meant to do. Having a commitment to “the right stuff” applies equally to police work. How each of us measures up to this standard carries with it “the great challenge and satisfaction” of being a law enforcement professional.

Train safe. God bless America