President Donald Trump’s executive order Tuesday outlining incentives for police reform is a welcome gesture, but it's quite unlikely to rectify the tangled conundrum of racism and police brutality that has sparked protests across the country.
Since George Floyd’s death, news feeds have streamed images of police clashing with protesters. The National Guard has been activated in 23 states, and now police officers nationwide are quitting their jobs.
While I’ve never served as a police officer in this country, I served as a member of America’s armed services. The militarized scenes playing out in Minneapolis, New York and Washington, D.C., look disappointingly like what I remember from a deployment to Afghanistan.
In Helmand province then, as in cities across this country now, the challenge was rooting out violent extremists hiding among an angry and fearful civilian population while simultaneously protecting that population from harm. I know firsthand that in environments where trust on both sides is low, confrontations can quickly escalate into violent conflagrations. While the U.S. military’s record on de-escalation is far from perfect, there are lessons I’ve personally learned that my fellow service members, and our law enforcement counterparts, would be wise to remember.
A core tenet of counterinsurgency strategy is, “First, do no harm.” It’s the spirit that guides decision-making in environments where the use of force can badly damage a campaign. To be clear, police aren’t battling an insurgency, and the situation in our streets calls for drastically less militarization, not more. But the spirit of the saying is a helpful guide to protecting and serving a community deeply mistrustful of law enforcement.
As I learned in Afghanistan, months of hard work earning the trust of my Afghan counterparts could be undone in minutes by the overreaction of one of my Marines. Similarly, the use of tear gas — an indiscriminate weapon that restricts breathing — on people protesting the death of a man whose dying words were “I can’t breathe” overshadows positive examples set by law enforcement like Chris Swanson, Michigan's Genesee County sheriff who put down his baton, spoke with protesters and marched with them.
If “do no harm” is the spirit of addressing a mistrustful community, then rules of engagement should guide those with the power to end life on how to behave. Military rules of engagement establish explicit escalation criteria and require service members to exhaust all nonviolent options before resorting to force. My Marines and I drilled relentlessly on de-escalation procedures and techniques. We knew we would be held administratively — and potentially legally — accountable if we broke the rules.
RETIRED OFFICER: Give police a real education before putting them on the streets
Police also should be held accountable to clear rules of engagement. The nation has now witnessed scenes where officers employed a disproportionate use of force on marchers. Had I targeted unarmed protesters and reporters in those ways, I would have been court-martialed. Any law enforcement leader who sends officers into the streets without clear rules of engagement focused on de-escalation, makes officers, and their community, less safe.
Another lesson from the battlefield is that presentation and tactics matter. If law enforcement officers come dressed for combat, they send a signal to the community to prepare for battle.
I learned quickly that interactions with Afghan civilians, especially angry ones, went much better when I removed my sunglasses and helmet and put away my rifle. The police too can lower tensions by taking off riot gear and showing tactical patience. Not every provocation requires an immediate response.
Resisting the impulse to act in situations where there is no immediate threat to life or limb buys time for cooler heads to prevail and space for nonviolent solutions to be employed. Reflecting on my own combat experience, it’s the times I chose not to use force that ended up being the most impactful for the communities I served.
Police officers, like military officers, take an oath to protect and serve their communities. As a country, we have a long way to go and much work to do before our communities of color feel like that oath applies equally to them.
Law enforcement leaders who want to stop criminals from freeloading on protests will struggle until they adopt rules and tactics that prevent escalating tensions and unnecessary harm to an already hurting community. If police hope to win the hearts and minds of their communities and prevent our streets from devolving into battlefields, they would be wise to heed what worked, and what didn’t, on an actual battlefield.
Kevin Mott is a former Marine Corps infantry officer and a member of the Defense Council at the Truman National Security Project. The views represented are his own.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What police can learn from a former infantry Marine about de-escalation