While cruising the Capitol Hill campus in his cop car Tuesday, Officer Michael Riley spotted a Subaru speeding through a red light. He flagged down the driver, examined his plates and approached the driver-side window.
Writing traffic tickets is one of the more mundane tasks of a Capitol Police officer. Less common are the kinds of heroic feats that recently earned Riley a prestigious national award.
Riley, a Senate Division cop who saved a colleague’s life last year, has been named February’s Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. That organization annually singles out 12 law enforcement officials among the nation’s 800,000-plus.
Riley is excited but modest.
“It feels good, but I was just doing my job,” the 14-year Capitol Police veteran said.
But the day he saved Officer Bryan Nickelson wasn’t a typical day.
It was Feb. 13, 2010, just after Snowmageddon slammed the District, and Riley — who lives 50 minutes east of D.C. — had volunteered to work overtime.
At 6:45 a.m., a voice on his radio reported a fallen officer who had slipped and hit his head on the ice in front of the Postal Museum near Union Station. Considering the weather, he wasn’t surprised. He had already helped several Washingtonians who had lost their footing.
“I didn’t expect it to be anything,” Riley said.
Nonetheless, he switched on his sirens and sped to answer the call for help. He found Nickelson, whom he had seen alive and well less than an hour before, lying flat on his back, unconscious and bleeding from his head and nose.
That’s when Nickelson stopped breathing.
Riley, a certified emergency medical technician, tilted Nickelson’s head back and dug his thumbs into his throat to force open his airway. There was no response. He checked Nickelson’s pulse. There wasn’t one.
More officers arrived on the scene, gaping at their dying co-worker. Some even thought Nickelson was dead, but Riley refused to stop giving him CPR. Twice his colleague gasped for air and then stopped breathing again before the D.C. Fire Department and EMS arrived and rushed him to the hospital.
Nickelson lay unconscious in the trauma unit at Washington Hospital Center for two weeks and underwent multiple surgeries. Doctors discovered he had a heart attack after slipping on the ice. A year later, he’s still recovering and works part time for the Capitol Police.
Witnessing the death or near-death of a colleague can traumatize even the toughest police officers.
“Police are trained to avoid emotion and react in a manner that protects and secures,” said Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse, who nominated Riley for the award. “[But] one of the most difficult things is seeing another officer down.”
Morse thinks Riley’s composure saved Nickelson’s life. “Had Mike not been there, we might not have had the outcome we all wanted,” Morse said.
Riley’s supervisor, Sgt. Dan Turner, said the honor is “most deserving.”
“Thank goodness he was working that day,” Nickelson agreed.
Months before the accident, Riley, a former firearms trainer with the Capitol Police, was recertified as an EMT. Although most officers are trained in first aid and CPR, EMT training is not a requirement unless officers work in the SWAT or firearms units.
Riley had never used the rigorous training until that day.
“That will probably be one of the most rewarding things in my career,” the 39-year-old father of two said.
Riley is the second Capitol Police officer to get the honor. In December 2010, Officer Eddie Thornton was named Officer of the Month for stopping a schizophrenic gunman shooting randomly in the air from killing passers-by in Prince George’s County. The suspect lodged a bullet in Thornton’s leg.
The national recognition is “a great honor among police officers,” Thornton said. “It’s not given to many.”
Morse said awards such as these serve two purposes. For one, they show the community that the police department is exceeding its duties, giving locals faith in law enforcement officials.
Most importantly, Morse said, the honors give credit where it’s due.
“These are people who sacrifice their lives and work in dangerous conditions every day,” he said. “It’s the least we can do for them. Recognition of their heroism is important.”