By County News Center
Receiving the Governor’s Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor is like getting a Super Bowl ring for San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Spears, and he is deeply honored and humbled.Detective Ali Perez at left surprised Deputy Michael Spears, center, and San Diego Police Officer Michael DeWitt by attending the ceremony which honored them for helping to save him.
“In law enforcement we try to be the best of the best. I know this doesn’t mean I’m the best, but it does mean I was recognized for being my best on that day,” Spears said Friday.
Spears and San Diego Police Officer Michael DeWitt were among 14 officers honored Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris in Sacramento. Both San Diego officers were honored for the Sept. 25, 2012 law enforcement shootout with a suspected child molester in Lakeside. Both Spears and DeWitt helped save the lives of two seriously wounded deputies.
The Public Safety Medal of Valor is awarded to those who show extraordinary valor above and beyond the call of duty. The Attorney General’s Office receives nominations from public safety agencies for consideration. The award is the most prestigious law enforcement honor in the state.
“Character, leadership and being able to act in difficult and uncertain circumstances – that’s what we honor today,” said Governor Brown in a news release. “These are the kind of values that we absolutely need to have a society that holds together.”
Attorney General Kamala Harris also stated, “The law enforcement officers we honor today are true heroes. Their actions and courage exemplify the highest level of public service. California is truly a safer place because of them.”
Any award -- even this award “wouldn’t mean anything if (Deputy) Ali (Perez) and (Sgt.) Craig (Johnson) weren’t alive,” said Spears. He added that the fact that they are alive and doing well is his biggest honor.
Perez and his wife surprised Spears by sitting in the audience Thursday as he received the medal. The award ceremony took place one day after the year anniversary of that terrifying day. Spears and Perez marked the day by getting together for dinner on Wednesday and thanking God that they were alive. Johnson, who was operating out of the Santee Sheriff's Station at the time of the shootout, was traveling and wasn’t able to attend either occasion, but he was there in spirit and heart, Spears said.
“It was emotionally draining. I still remember what happened. That’s tough, but we’re still alive,” he said.
Perez and Johnson were in the lead on that day. They knocked on the door of the suspected child molester and kicked the door in when they got no response. Perez was immediately shot and Johnson returned fire but was also shot. Spears was right outside when the shots rang out and he shielded Johnson with his body and pulled him out of the apartment and then kicked in a next door neighbor’s door where they sought cover from the gunfire.
He helped cover another officer who went in to rescue Perez. Later, when the wounded suspect crawled out of the apartment, Spears and another deputy held him at gunpoint.
The hero title still fits a little awkwardly on his shoulders.
“To me I did what anyone who didn’t want to die would do. I didn’t want my friends to die, I didn’t want to die, so I followed my training. To me it was just a life or death situation and I chose to live,” Spears said.
San Diego Police Officer Michael DeWitt, with the Gang Suppression/S.W.A.T. unit, was also honored with a Medal of Valor award for the same incident. DeWitt was driving to work when he heard the sheriff shootout and could see chaos in the apartment complex. He pulled over and put his tactical gear on and ran to assist a group of deputies and assembled a team to approach the apartment to rescue Perez.
When a panicked woman with two small children was also running from the apartment right in the shooting suspect’s line of fire, DeWitt ran toward her and picked up her 4-year-old child while she ran with her infant and led them across the street.
Then DeWitt ran back to help deputies rescue Johnson and Spears who were still in the apartment next door.
Also honored for going above and beyond the call of duty were 11 Modesto Police Department officers and a California Highway Patrol officer.