After Ferguson, police consider 'tactical retreat' instead of force
Chiefs of the St. Louis and St. Louis County police have said in recent interviews they are reviewing training with the principles of tactical retreat in mind
By Christine Byers
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Like many officers involved in deadly force encounters, Darren Wilson said his training took over when he shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.
But what if Wilson had been trained differently?
The national upheaval from Brown's death, and some others since, has put enormous pressure on law enforcement to find ways to control people's behavior while using less violence. One possibility — simple but repugnant to some officers — is to teach police to back away from certain difficult situations until help can arrive.
The concept is known as "tactical retreat" or sometimes "tactical withdrawal" or "tactical restraint."
"We add the word, 'tactical' and not just 'retreating' or 'giving up' because that's what makes it palatable for police officers," explained Seth Stoughton, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina.
The former Florida officer is a nationally prominent advocate for applying the softer approach.
"It's basically the choice to work smarter rather than harder."
Wilson has said he was in his police SUV on Aug. 9 when Brown, standing outside, struggled with him through the vehicle window and Wilson's gun fired twice. Brown was struck at least once in the hand, and ran. Wilson gave chase, and Brown turned back. Wilson then shot him multiple times, explaining later that he feared for his life.
Had Wilson been coached in tactical retreat, Stoughton said, he instead might have stepped on the gas to drive away from the encounter, and kept Brown in sight while waiting for backup.
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," Stoughton explained. "Train police officers to avoid putting themselves in danger, and you will see them use less force to get themselves out of danger.
"That's good for everybody."
Chiefs of the St. Louis and St. Louis County police have said in recent interviews they are reviewing training with the principles of tactical retreat in mind.
But it's a delicate dance, warned Sam Dotson, the city chief.
"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."
Tactical retreat can be a hard sell to police traditionally trained to subdue an adversary -- and to keep pouring on force until that is accomplished. Most departments have policies that provide discipline for cowardice.
Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, called the tactical retreat concept "cowardice retreat," and complained that it is "shameful" to consider.
"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."
A misjudgment with tactical retreat could get an officer killed, said David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who urges caution in the way it's used.
"If you retreat, you're giving the guy an opportunity to win the fight, and you have to be bold," said Klinger, a former Los Angeles officer. "However, if you have the advantage of horsepower, you should break away.
"But Darren Wilson didn't think that way, because he was never trained in that."
Wilson did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
He resigned before the Ferguson police could begin tactical-based training, which incorporates the principles of tactical retreat in certain situations, said Chief Thomas Jackson.
Jackson said he had hired Lt. Col. Al Eickhoff, a former St. Louis County tactical officer, to oversee the effort. But just five days after Eickhoff started, Wilson shot Brown.
Dotson said he believes city officers already show restraint, and he has instituted a police shooting investigative unit that also includes a tactical review component.
Department figures show that officers shot back 12 of the 22 times they were fired upon in the past three years. They fired seven times in the 23 incidents of someone grabbing for their guns and 21 times in 46 occasions of people pointing a gun at them.
"I don't think people know how dangerous this job is," Dotson said. "I think this speaks to the discipline officers show. In a society that has so many guns, it's amazing that we don't have more police shootings."
But Stoughton said it's important to put the dangers of the job into perspective.
He remembers that his academy training in Tallahassee, Fla., included graphic videos of officers who were killed or beaten. The message, he said, was that officers often die due to their own lack of vigilance.
That approach, he said, turns guardians into warriors.
"If you're guarding people, you don't want to club the people you're supposed to be guarding, but if you are in the warrior mindset, you want to because you're in a war against something, and that really pushes the idea of talking to people and engaging with the community aside," he said.
Katherine Fenerson, 41, of St. Louis, who has been active in recent protests in Ferguson and St. Louis, believes police training should focus more on mindset.
"We don't have a community policing system, we have a situation where people feel like it's us versus them," she said. "That mindset would have to be changed, and the only way to work on that is to have police be involved in the community and let them know they are really here to protect them."
Stoughton suggested that training in tactical retreat could help calm a police mindset he sees as unnecessarily stressful. He pointed to FBI data showing there are an estimated 63 million interactions between police and U.S. civilians a year and an annual average of about 51 officers killed in hostile encounters.
"When you are trained to be hypervigilant and told everything is a potential threat, it sounds really scary, when actually, most things aren't threatening at all," he said. "Most interactions are peaceful, and force of any type is relatively uncommon."
County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he believes all officers could benefit from more training on verbal and body language and positioning skills. "It's all about how to put yourself in a good position in order not to use force," he explained.
Recognizing a number of cases in which officers have shot in self-defense at cars coming toward them, Belmar said, "Don't get yourself in front of the car. Instead, think to yourself, 'I don't want to get run over.'"
He said SWAT officers have more training in what might be called tactical retreat, but they "operate in a controlled situation, and that doesn't apply to the street officer." He added, "It can be problematic because, at times, tactical retreat can get you killed."
Belmar said one way officers can avoid using force is as simple as avoiding profanity, which he said can inflame an encounter. He is considering a policy to prohibit officers in uniform from using profanity with citizens.
Stoughton said Police Chief Chris Magnus in Richmond, Calif., set a good example of recognizing the value of tactical retreat.
The Justice Department added Magnus to a panel reviewing police-community relations in Ferguson. He gained attention in December when he held a "Black Lives Matter" sign while in uniform among protesters showing solidarity with those in Ferguson.
Magnus declined in an email to comment on his role with the panel, saying it is "ongoing work."
Considered one of the more violent communities in the San Francisco Bay area — and at one point on pace to have the nation's highest homicide rate — Richmond added almost monthly scenario-based training in 2008, after officers shot five people in two years.
Since then, the force has averaged fewer than one officer-involved shooting per year, even though shootings by officers in nearby jurisdictions have remained static or risen.
Putting officers through realistic high-stress scenarios helps them gain confidence by tuning their reactions and recognizing their weaknesses, said Richmond's deputy chief, Allwyn Brown.
Brown said mandating scenario-based training is expensive, but asked, "How much is Ferguson costing the county now?"
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