President Obama honors Santa Monica cops for valor

When SMCPD’s Captain Raymond Bottenfield got the call that a shooter was loose on the Santa Monica College campus, he was off duty. He didn’t have time to change into his uniform or equip body armor. He reacted the only way he knew how — he grabbed his gun and headed to the scene.

He and two Santa Monica Police officers proceeded to enter the SMC Main Campus library where armed gunman John Zawahri was inside, spraying rounds of ammunition from his assault rifle.

The trio entered the library and put an end to the destruction, limiting the death toll to five where there could have been many more. Through bravery and selflessness, Bottenfield, along with officers Jason Salas and Robert Sparks of the Santa Monica Police Department ended the horror.

Monday, they were officially honored, along with ten others for differing reasons, by President Obama in a ceremony that took place in the White House, where the president personally presented them each with the 2013-2014 Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor.

Bottenfield has been on the force for 19 years and became the first captain in the SMCPD’s history in 2013. His reaction to receiving word that he was to be honored in the White House was one of surprise.

“It took a while to sink in,” he said. “It’s been awhile since we received the Governor’s Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor and, at that point, it was like, okay cool, we’ve done it. We’ve got everything, we’re done. And all of a sudden this just came out of the blue… it was kind of a big shock.”

The courage of the three officers during the shooting on June 7, 2013 cannot be overstated, especially for Bottenfield, who was off-duty and responded to the call with what he had handy. Recounting his thought process when entering the library, he said, “My biggest thing that I was thinking was that I was in plain clothes. So I was wearing a pair of jeans and a black button-up shirt. And the description had come out of the suspect being in all black. I didn’t have anything identifying myself as a police officer but I was with two, and I didn’t have any body armor and I was also carrying a smaller weapon than I would normally carry on duty. So I was really counting on those officers ahead of me.”

Soon after entering, the officers shot and killed Zawahri when he pointed his assault rifle at them, ending the rampage and the nightmare for those on campus.

Interim Dean of Student Life Nancy Grass, who was Chair of Communications Studies at the time, and administrative assistant Linda Sallovitz were on campus that day, locked down in the Letters and Sciences building.

Sallovitz, talking about the White House ceremony, said, “I think it’s really nice. It took a lot of bravery to do what they did and they did it well… They kept us safe.”

Grass said, “I’m so proud and honored… He risked his life truly in the most horrific moment this college has ever seen and he saved countless people, countless students… There isn’t an honor high enough for what they represented and what they did.”

The Medal of Valor is given to those who display exceptional courage in the attempt to save or protect human life.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who spoke during the ceremony, said, “Confronted with imminent danger, they responded with uncommon valor. In encountering wrong doers with no regard for law or life, they sought to defend the vulnerable and to do justice.

After Lynch, President Obama spoke at length about the sense of gratitude felt toward law enforcement, also using the opportunity to direct the public conversation toward how law enforcement is perceived and how it can be improved.

“Medals and ceremonies like today are important,” he said, “but these aren’t enough to convey the true depth of our gratitude.”

SMC Superintendent President Dr. Kathryn Jeffery talked about the feeling of seeing the officers honored: “All of us who witnessed it felt such a deep sense of pride to see President Barack Obama recognize our SMC hero Captain Raymond Bottenfield for his selfless act of valor."

One of the most noticeable things about Bottenfield and his heroism that day is his humility and avoidance of the spotlight. According to Grass, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, it was a while before they found out that Bottenfield was one of the three who stopped the gunman.

“They never asked for any praise… to this day Ray doesn’t say much about it,” Grass said. “Too often in our society, the people who scream the loudest get the most attention and the people who have done the real work, the real hard work, and who are the real heroes get very little of the praise and attention… I can’t imagine a more deserving team than our team right here, and Ray in particular.”

The events that took place on that day were tragic, but could have been worse had it not been for the immediate actions of the officers involved. They put everything on the line and saved lives because of it. To Bottenfield, it wasn’t just a job at that point and it didn’t matter that he was off duty. As Loretta Lynch said during the ceremony, “It’s not the hour on the clock or the color of the shirt that determines a hero, but the heart of the guardian.”