Collateral Damage Control

An officer with a headache is no big problem, but an officer who can't multi-task may not be able to do the job.


Two headlines in USA Today tell the story: "Reservists back in police jobs raise concerns" and "Combat brain injuries multiply." Together, they point to a challenge that will affect law enforcement for years to come. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of their heavy use of reserve and National Guard troops, have already taken a toll on American policing. Many agencies across the country find the thin blue line even thinner as officers have been called up to active duty from reserve and guard units. Extended deployments and repeat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have only worsened the problem. Now, what should bring relief--the troops returning home and cops-turned-soldiers returning to the beat--instead may bring unanticipated problems.

Much as we describe ourselves as "warriors," use combat terms in training, and outfit our SWAT teams with military-style gear, cops aren't soldiers and policing is not war. But increasingly, policing and war take place in similar surroundings, with no easy way to tell the good guys from the bad. That combination makes for potentially tragic results when veterans return to policing at home.

The purposes of war and policing are different. War is undertaken to defeat an enemy, primarily by killing enough people and destroying sufficient resources that the enemy can no longer continue to fight. Law enforcement in the U.S. is intended to keep the peace, by preventing crime, containing criminals, and protecting the constitutional rights of all persons--including the criminals. The different purposes dictate different rules of engagement. In war, collateral damage--the unintended killing and wounding of non-combatants--is expected and condoned, although regretted. Very often the unspoken rule is "shoot first, and ask questions later." That makes good sense in war. Most of the time when you encounter the enemy, other people in the immediate vicinity are likely to be enemy as well. You often cannot run the risk of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

In policing, collateral damage is not tolerated. In fact, we set up very strict limitations on when an officer can use deadly force, and even stricter limits on the use of a firearm. We require (with rare exceptions) that an officer achieve target isolation before pulling the trigger. In other words, the officer must be reasonably sure that his or her bullet will strike only the intended person, and not an innocent bystander. An officer who plays fast and loose with those restrictions can expect civil and criminal charges will swiftly follow.

We know that the effect of training is magnified when accompanied by an emotional punch. What greater emotional punch can there be than war? When our soldiers come home, we will have to retrain them for law enforcement work. Some agencies are recognizing this and developing re-entry training. Often this includes interviews with psychologists, time at the firing range, and refresher courses on use of force. Important as these steps are, returning veterans may need more. It's one thing to make a shoot/don't shoot decision about a paper target at the firing range; it's quite another to make the same decision in a real confrontation--especially when you have a year or more of daily "training" in a combat zone.

We need to deal with this issue on two levels. First, we need to acknowledge its existence and potential impacts and train our trainers in that regard. Then we need to expose returning soldiers to carefully designed simulations that will both help retrain them and help training staff assess their readiness for the street. Just as we do for beginning officers, we should develop progressively more complex simulations for re-entry training; culminating in realistic, highly contextual situations. Officers may be able to handle the easier scenarios, but when pushed to respond automatically, may revert to their military mindset in making use-of-force decisions. And we should make sure to include some non-use-of-force scenarios, as well. After all, 99% of the time, officers do not even threaten to use force in their public contacts. Officers need to be able to choose an appropriate response and switch gears rapidly as the situation dictates.

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