Rules of Engagement (ROE)

“To reduce wrongful shootings, cops should reinforce an ethical code that, like soldiers, accepts deadly risk as inherent to their professional responsibility.”

[Ed. Note: The following article is by Major M.L. Cavanaugh, currently an Army Strategist with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He served as an infantry officer in Iraq and has a most thoughtful take on what can be a positive link between police and military — how they use deadly force. Maybe this is the kind of militarization police need! This adds to what I have previously written about a certain “attitude” I sense among today’s police; the failure to believe and understand that deadly risk is an inherent part of being police officer today as it has been in the past. I would be interest in your take on the following article.]

To Reduce Wrongful Shootings, Police Can Learn From Our Soldiers

Major M.L. Cavanaugh

The Gazette, September 4, 2017

“Sometimes, police must shoot to keep the peace. When used effectively, this results in safer cities. When done wrongfully, it inflames society.

“The question is how police can best wield deadly force. The 2015 Colorado state law mandating local law enforcement report and review shootings is a good start. In Minneapolis, where a police officer fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman, the acting chief has announced police must turn on body cameras for ‘any call.’

“But this technological solution treats the symptoms of police shootings that countrywide cause roughly 1,000 civilian deaths each year.

“The problem is deeper: to reduce wrongful shootings, cops should reinforce an ethical code that, like soldiers, accepts deadly risk as inherent to their professional responsibility.

“An Army officer with deep respect for law enforcement, I recognize that cops and soldiers are different: one fights wars abroad, one polices the peace at home.

“Yet, ultimately, both protect and serve Americans.

“And ethical codes can be written down, but more typically are unofficial and informal rules of thumb. Cops and soldiers have them, but some in law enforcement appear to have picked up a few bad ones.

“These wrong-thinking cops seem to have adopted ‘the first rule of law enforcement,’ made famous in the film, The Untouchables, in which a policeman advises, ‘Make sure when your shift is over, you go home alive.’ This line could’ve been spoken by James O’Neill, commissioner of the New York City Police Department, who just said, ‘Not one of us signed up to never return to our family or loved ones.’ Another officer, on trial, noted an expression heard often amongst cops: ‘I’d rather be tried by twelve than carried by six,’ a preference to face legal dishonor instead of potential peril.

“So some cops put fear of policing’s personal consequences over their professional responsibilities. When some police feel threatened, their ethical code tells them to fire first.

“There’s another option. Soldiers know shoot-or-not scenarios well. As a lieutenant, near Fallujah, Iraq, we had teenagers that would come a little too close, linger too long, near our fighting positions. Were they bored kids? Or feeding information to the insurgency?

“One hot day, they started firing golf ball-size rocks at us with a weaponized slingshot. The right strike could have killed. Several soldiers wanted to shoot, which would have been justified. But we held fire – in part because soldiers expect to risk death.

“Philosopher Michael Walzer calls this moral principle ‘risk acceptance.’ He tells the story of a World War I soldier that heard noises in a house’s cellar where enemy troops recently passed. The decision: toss in a grenade to eliminate the threat, or the chancier choice, to clear the underground room and ensure it wasn’t filled with civilians.

“That soldier didn’t throw his grenade. He went in and found civilians. This is proper moral conduct at war, which is to say, ‘if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives, the risk must be accepted.’

“This warrior’s code shows up in less formal ways, heavily influenced by Tennyson’s line that warriors are ‘to do and die.’ Consider the saying among soldiers and Marines, ‘death before dishonor.’ Or paratroopers that sing, ‘If I die on the combat zone, Box me up and ship me home.’ In northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters are called Peshmerga, which translates, ‘those who face death.’ Collectively, these underline a truth: soldiers expect death may come in the conduct of their duties.

“The slingshot kids? They were just bored. We’ll never know for sure, but at least we didn’t create several new insurgents, or enrage a family and city.

“Similarly, good cops, when called to a burglary, upon finding an open door and likely subjects inside, do not pull back and call an artillery strike. They maneuver into the building at no small hazard to themselves. They accept the risk because that’s what police officers are expected to do. This is the professional standard.

“Cops aren’t warriors, yet, in this narrow way both have a common obligation to show restraint, even at personal risk, in protecting the public. If cops re-emphasize this responsibility, then they might just reduce some of these tragic shootings.


Major ML Cavanaugh is an Army Strategist, a Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. [This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.]


  1. It’s like a professional firefighter who rushes into a burning building to rescues a kid, a dog or a kitty whir NO though of his safety and regular fire fighter puts water on the fire. We need more professional Police Officers who are willing to check that house out. It’s NOT a job, it’s a PROFESSION….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I noticed this early on in my career, when we started to hear from command staff statements such as “its not worth it”. Which they seemed to apply to any enforcement action that was the least bit dangerous. That and “the most important thing is that you go home at the end of the shift”. Was once told by a supervisor that we were not going to execute a search warrant on some armed drug dealers because it was too dangerous… So my question was then who do we call…. if the police won’t do it. People with that mind set have been promoted to the highest positions and now oversee departments where the mission is juts go home safe. That’s not the mission, the missions is serving and protecting and some times that’s dangerous. Yes its true, that any one action is not worth the life of an officer, but that’s not looking at the big picture, the big picture is that effective law enforcement is worth losing some lives. If you can’t except that then find another line of work. That being said, comparing law enforcement to the military is a dangerous comparison. Officers react quicker to a threat because in almost all situations where deadly force is used the officer is alone or with one other officer. Even our highest trained military operators operate at squad strength, so they have the option of prior planning, they also choose when to engage the enemy in many instances. An officer alone on his beat is usually just reacting to a pop-up threat. Very few officers or civilians are lost during pre-planned raids….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. In the TV show Hill Street Blues, Sgt Stan Jablonski would tell his officers, “let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” Sgt. Lucy Bates in one episode was distraught because Jablonski had use an incident that involved Bates and Jablonski stated lets do what Bates did to that criminal before the criminals do it to us. Sgt Bates did not like it and made her views clear to Jablonski.

    The next episode Jablonski had to explain to his officer what he meant by his remark about doing it to them before they do it to us. He told them that his statement doesn’t mean that a cop can do bad things to people in order to stay alive and enforce the law. He stated that he was proud of being a cop and never did anything illegal or immoral as a cop. Late in the show, the writers drop Jablonski’s statement and replace it with a new saying “They are getting away out there.”


  4. “Collectively, these underline a truth: soldiers expect death may come in the conduct of their duties.”

    I find it disturbing that while soldiers are willing to risk their lives because it is part of the profession as Colonel Jock Sinclair told the young lieutenant in the movie Tunes of Glory but many police officers do not have the same attitude when it comes to their profession. If these cops were part of the military, they would have been court-martial and either been executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy or being sent to the stockade with a heavy prison term.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In my years as a street sergeant, my corporal (a 25 year SWAT operator) and I used to talk about exactly this. We would say to our squad, ‘Don’t say It’s my job to go home’. That’s a possibility, but danger is part of the job. We do our best to minimize risk, but this new idea that somehow it’s acceptable to shoot someone who,”doesn’t do what they’re told” or that we have no reason to accept risk is just wrong.

    At the same time, I’d point to the other equally disturbing trend that has been accepted far too often: Officer induced risk. We are ignoring our training and then reacting with deadly force. What is the hurry? Slow down, get your cover or more cops, see what you actually have. I’ve seen too many cases where tragedy might have been prevented by better tactics or slowing down to properly asses.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. That was Phil Esterhaus the first sergeant of Hill Street Blues. The point that Jablonski was making to his officers was that he would not tolerate or condone any misconduct by his officers.


  7. Should a neurosurgeon refuse to perform a potentially life saving procedure for a patient who will certainly lose his/her life because they are afraid of a potential poor outcome and malpractice litigation. Turning away the patient for potential liability reasons is selfish, and doesn’t take into consideration what’s best for the patient. This is a self-protective strategy which only considers what is best for the physician.

    See how this is similar to the shoot first philosophy of the police force.

    Just like doctors, law enforcement professionals need to accept the risk involved with the profession. At times, this could mean that the safety needs of the public take precedence over their own safety needs.

    But, are officers compensated in an appropriate way to help justify the assumed risk? More importantly, what values are promoted within the law enforcement culture. What actions are rewarded, or punished?


  8. The police are not the military, nor should they be compared to the military. There vast differences and one cannot compare the two. The military spends years training for a singularly focused battle and when in battle they are there to obliterate the enemy, then build community. We build community and then have to deal with threats, too often. Whether on the ground with a sniper rifle, the air with a 2k bomb or the sea with a missile, the military’s mission is much different. They are focused on eliminating the enemy. The police work with fellow citizens and therefore should and do go the extra mile to ensure their fellow countryman’s safety, work within a legal system with intense scrutiny and an ever-present media focus. The police are in this conflict for 20-30 years of constant struggle-no break. Military battlefield experience is often shorter in duration but more intense for that duration, where policing is like a dripping faucet, constant and never-ending. Correctly asserted there are some who view going home at all cost, above duty to the community. In my 40 years of policing, they are the minority who need some guidance, correction, and leadership. But let’s not confuse policing with the military, until we begin using drones from 1,000 miles away to deal with a threat on the ground. This is said not to chastise the techniques of the military, I support them, but to draw a clear distinction between the two bodies of justice.


  9. Cops build communities? When you look at the history of policing, they spend a lot of time not building communities, suppressing people in the communities and in many cases, don’t live in the communities where they work. In addition, many cops do not help with ensuring that the legal system is fair, impartial and focusing on justice because they tend to support DAs and judges who will back them up.

    You wonder what is the percentage of cops are in the minority of going home at all costs particularly when it has been drilled into their heads at the academy and/or in the field?

    Well, the cops are using drones and the FBI got caught doing so because they did not develop policies and procedures on when to use them. They figure they could get away with it. In Dallas, they use that robot machine to kill the sniper instead of trying to capture him and bring him to trial. That incident just might start a precedence where cops are no longer going to risk their lives in order to bring people to justice and use the technology to kill people. They will be acting like murder squads in Central and South America.


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