By Stephen Owsinski
After examining the Ferguson, MO, officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown, and the subsequent often-violent protests exposed to the world, a seemingly new philosophy is brewing in the way police officers do their jobs. Called “tactical retreat” or “tactical withdrawal” or “tactical restraint,” the paradigm shift stems from a central question. Given the circumstances as we know them, is it possible that if police officer Wilson exercised greater restraint, and withdrew from the suspect-escalated situation, would Michael Brown be alive?
Transcending Ferguson, can such a change in policing techniques spread throughout our nation? Should it?
That is what authorities in the St. Louis County, MO, area are postulating. If police are trained to essentially back-down from incidents which escalated to the extent of imminent deadly force, will tactical withdrawal methodologies plausibly offset these episodes?
Criminologist Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina, thinks so. Stoughton delineated it this way: “We add the word, ‘tactical’ and not just ‘retreating’ or ‘giving up’ because that’s what makes it palatable for police officers.” Sounds like a quaint pitch from a salesperson pushing a new product via police vernacular.
No matter those dynamics and semantics (and connotations conjured by these proposed tactics), is tactical retreating the answer? Will the criminal-minded perceive this proposed tactical adaptation as being given the upper-hand? Will such a maneuver alleviate any perceived police/community relations woes? Will withdrawing weaken the objective and mission of law enforcement? Will sliding-scale of perils have any pertinence?
Stoughton suggests “It’s basically the choice to work smarter rather than harder.” Although one may appreciate that credo, it leaves out the dimension of criminal elements fleeing, without concern for being pursued. As St. Louis Metro police Chief Sam Dotson explained to the press, “Society has to realize that we pay police officers to keep us safe. And if every criminal knows, ‘If I confront an officer, they will take four steps back, that’s my escape route,’ then that becomes the new norm.”
Traditional methodologies taught in police academies, largely founded in command and control, are based on assessment, actionable responses, and resolution, not start over mentalities. With good reason. To the extent tactical retreat becomes an indoctrinated police protocol, the bravado-based responses from the bad guys are sure to be influenced.
One may wonder why the onus is squarely placed upon the shoulders of LEOs. Implicit by nature of their titles, public servants are relegated to public safety provisions. So, too, are society’s members responsible for complying with social norms. Norms, not chaos, crises, and/or anarchy. Relenting from traditional police practices to confront malcontents is a huge gamble, leaving too much to chance.
Moreover, tactical retreat measures (if any validity exists) does not take into account inherent dangers imposed to innocents at/near the scene. A scared thug who takes advantage of police retreat can use the factor to become brazen enough to delve into the realm of anarchy, maiming or slaying a bystander. The mindset/response from the bad guy is “I did it because I can!” Tactical retreat, therefore, is construed as an invitation to menace and malevolence.
Criminologist Stoughton posited Officer Wilson “could have been trained to do something different to allow him to apprehend Michael Brown without putting himself in a situation that made him feel deadly force was the only safe response.” Perhaps. That very notion –“putting himself in a situation”– implies sole responsibility for the beginning, the middle, and the end, effectively indemnifying the aggressor.
In relative support of the tactical retreat debate, John Firman, the Director of Development of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, weighed in: “[Cowardice] is a very unique situation. That’s a rarity. Tactical hold, perimeter hold, is making sure that you’re reducing the likelihood that someone — either the suspect or the officer — is going to be harmed.” If department policy dictates an officer must retreat when this or that transpires, that is not cowardice; however, it may very well be perceived as cowardice in the eyes of suspects.
St. Louis County police Detective Gabe Crocker recently stated via a 97.1 FM News Talk radio show, “Why should we have to change law enforcement nationwide to make exceptions for this violent few when what we should be doing is making it harder for this violent few to have such a powerful lobby on their side?” Crocker asked. “Police officers are trying to uphold the laws of society and protect people. Instead, people are labeling us as aggressive and people who need more training.”
How do you reason with the “tactical retreat” proposition and philosophy? Stand down and regroup…or take the bull by the horns?