Tim Blagg

Blagg: Rules of engagement

August 16, 2014

August 16, 2014

The phrase “rules of engagement” — or ROE — is a familiar one to soldiers and police officers around the world.

The rules, which should be drilled into anyone going into combat, or who routinely carries a weapon in the course of their work, carefully and specifically lay out conditions for using force against others.

Police officers, for example, carry an array of tools to use in different situations that allow them to tailor their response to the threat they perceive. Typically, an officer is trained in some form of hand-to-hand combat, and also in the proper use of handcuffs, a baton, pepper spray, a Taser, a handgun and the shotgun or carbine often carried in a cruiser. Today, as we’ve been seeing out in St. Louis suburb during the last week or so, their weapons may even include tear gas, “beanbag rounds,” rubber bullets and fully automatic weapons.

The ROE are meant to allow them to apply just the right amount of force necessary to neutralize any threat — but also prohibit them from using excessive methods.

And, to make things more difficult, the rules change, according to current law and usage.

Chokeholds, for example, which used to be taught and permitted, are now — in the light of deaths attributed to them — considered too dangerous and most departments don’t allow them.

When I was a cop, I carried a “sap” — a spring-loaded, leather-covered lead blackjack, in a special pocket in my uniform pants. In the glove box of my cruiser, I had a “claw,” which was a steel device with a T-handle that could be clamped on a subject’s arm, applying force — and considerable pain — to convince someone to “come along quietly.”

No self-respecting police department would ever allow such implements to be carried these days by their officers, and anyone who used them would be sued — and rightly so.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to sit in an office and write about how just the right amount of force should be applied in each situation, but a lot harder when people are screaming, shoving and threatening you. Or in combat, when your buddies are being killed by snipers or IEDs on a daily basis, and each approaching car or motorbike may suddenly explode.

Nonetheless, as a society we’ve decided that holding officers — and soldiers — to the ROE is necessary ... and we punish those who break them.

So, when an officer — or a homeowner — shoots someone, we immediately begin to dissect the incident. Was the person armed? Did the shooter THINK the person was armed? Was it reasonable for him or her to think that?

Was there a threat to the officer or other persons? Was there a struggle? Were there others involved? Could pepper spray or a Taser have been used instead?

And so on and so on.

In the meantime, as we’ve been seeing in Ferguson, Mo., the community has already tried and convicted an officer who shot a young man. “Witnesses” have come forward and had their five minutes of fame on TV, but not under oath or sharp questioning. Politicians are making speeches and “talking heads” are opining and speculating on news and talk shows. The dead man’s mother, father and friends are testifying to his sterling character.

The officer’s side of the story has not been made public, as is too often the case, so it’s not at all clear what really happened ... for that, we’ll have to wait for the investigators — local and federal — to ponderously assemble evidence and come to a conclusion. By that time, typically, nobody will believe them.

But the bottom line, despite the public outcry, will be — as it always is in cases of this sort — did the officer follow the ROE?

Did he have an alternative way to meet the threat he perceived, or did he skip to the use of his handgun? If he failed to follow the rules, then he is guilty of not only breaking department policy, but also of taking a life unnecessarily.

And for that, he should be punished.

Possessing a deadly weapon — whether you’re a soldier or Marine in a combat zone, a police officer on the street, or a homeowner with a pistol in a weapons safe in your home — carries a grave responsibility.

The bottom line is that failing to abide by the rules of engagement should be punished with the full weight of the law. But discerning exactly what happened in the sort of circus atmosphere we’re seeing in Missouri is very difficult — if not impossible.

And that’s a shame.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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