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.