It was a stormy day on Aug. 9, 1986. U.S. Park Police Officer Richard Deriso received a call from his dispatcher to be on the alert for abandoned vehicles in the Hains Point area because of severe flooding.
Upon reaching the site in East Potomac Park, Deriso noticed an orange car drifting along the river with two screaming passengers inside. In a matter of minutes, as the car began to sink into more than 10 feet of water, Deriso jumped in, followed by two citizens, and rescued the motorists. There were no injuries.
That incident has won Deriso, 38, recognition in Parade magazine as one of the nation's top 10 police officers. He was honored this month for exemplifying "heroism and bravery" in a situation of extreme emergency and danger.
His efforts also brought him awards from the International Association of Police Chiefs and the U.S. Department of Interior.
But Deriso plays down his role, saying he was just doing his job. "There are thousands of officers who are saving people's lives every day," Deriso said. "I haven't done anything extraordinary. I felt a sense of responsibility for the people when I saw them. They didn't react when I tried to motion them to steer the car toward the side. So I had no choice but to jump in."
Maj. Richard Cusick, a spokesman for the U.S. Park Police, said that Deriso's actions are noteworthy and that overall, "park policemen don't get the public recognition they deserve. We are a full service police agency, and many people don't realize the extent of our work."
"When one of our guys receives an award, it gives others the motivation to do a good job," Cusick said. He added that inevitably every police officer has an experience of going beyond the call of duty. Usually, Cusick said, that officer writes off the experience as "part of the job."
Park Police Sgt. William Lynch said of Deriso, "He is a very competent and qualified officer, very articulate and works well with his peers . . . and we are fortunate to have such a person."
Lynch added, "The significant thing about what Officer Deriso did . . . is that he started on the force virtually one year prior to that. So he was essentially a rookie on his own for about six months. Considering the high degree of danger and risk, he stands out for the quick action he took."
Deriso stresses that police officers are trained to act appropriately in emergency situations. "In the middle of things like that, there is no danger. I felt supreme confidence . .. but a police officer has to be able to make quick, intelligent decisions. The legal system wrestles with the decisions we make every day."
He added that the job of a police officer involves constant contact with people , and that a certain amount of "sensitivity and emotion" is necessary.
But Deriso said the U.S. Park Police are "suffering from a negative-image crisis in the community. We are often perceived as the lazy, shiftless person who walks around beautiful parks all day . . . but that couldn't be further from the truth."
Deriso left his career as a chemist to join the police force two years ago "because I wanted a career change and I felt I could do the job." He said the strong sense of camaraderie among his peers as well as family support are the key factors to his success.
"He is probably one of the most unselfish persons I know," said Deriso's wife Sheila. "He's not in very much for the limelight. When something goes wrong he panics after the fact, but before, he's a pretty controlled person. He believes in being the best that you can at whatever you do."
But the Silver Spring resident shies away from such names as "hero" and "leader." He explained: "Being a leader is not a conscious decision unless a person is actively seeking it, like a political office. Whether you want it or not, you become a leader when you are thrust into a situation and have to initiate an act. In that case, you don't have a choice in leadership."
He added, "A hero is nothing more than a normal person placed in an extraordinary circumstance, who makes the right decision. Anyone can be a hero by being at the right place at the right time and doing the right thing."