An effective starting point for reforming the criminal justice system would be allowing law enforcement officers to step down from the “hero” pedestal Americans placed them on after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Why?

Because genuine heroism has been cheapened. If everyone is a hero, no one is a hero.

Because it is not fair to officers to have to live up to being a hero every day. What must an officer do to maintain that image? What risks might an officer be tempted to take — to him — or herself or to the community? At what point does a hero become a warrior or an executioner?

Because the hero label turns conversation about policing into a false dichotomy in which one is for policing or against it. Anyone who questions — let alone protests — systems, policies or individual officer actions may be considered to be unpatriotic and undeserving of police protection.

Because it is difficult to hold heroes accountable. Add police union protections, and it can be impossible. Heroes are revered and believed. Ordinary citizens, particularly those of color or those with a criminal history, not so much.

When a law enforcement officer puts on the uniform, all the gear, and tucks a gun into a holster, that officer assumes authority and as such is larger than him- or herself. But underneath, an officer remains an ordinary human being with hopes and fears and needs of his or her own. As my grandfather would say of authorities, especially those he perceived were bursting their britches, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else.”

Let officers step down off that pedestal. Doing so may save lives and careers.

Debra Rawlings is a resident of Rantoul.