The St. Louis Police Department is eyeing a new strategy to deescalate tension between an officer and a suspect before a scene turns violent. Dubbed, “tactical retreat,” law enforcement officials would remove themselves from a scene to reduce the need to use deadly force.
Tactical retreat entails stepping away from a scene until an officer arrives for back up, which also allows time for a more thorough assessment of how to approach a suspect. Proponents believe that doing so is a sign of “smart policing” that can avoid deadly encounters.
However, there are many officers who contend that tactical training is actually counterproductive. On one hand, knowing that officers are expected to step back may empower suspects to the detriment of police and others close to the scene. Others view withdrawal as a sign of weakness. Moreover, many officers argue that implementing a tactical retreat policy actually undermines police efforts to uphold public safety, insofar as it paints them as the aggressors who need to be reformed.
John Firman, the Director of Development of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, disagrees with opponents of the deescalation method. “The only case you wouldn’t do that is if someone’s life is critically at risk at that time, for instance if the person is shooting at someone else,” he explained. “The real question is, ‘How soon do you need compliance’? If a person is mentally ill and they’re wandering around and screaming at people, they’re not going to comply. If I’m an autistic child and you say ‘stand up,’ I’m not going to comply. How quickly do you need compliance, how much do you need, and what are the threats to safety? A smart officer is going to assess all of that and do anything necessary to minimize potential that there’s going to be further damage.”