Asking Our Soldiers to Do Police Work: Why It Can Lead to Disaster

Armed-forces personnel are trained to "engage and destroy," peace officers "to protect and to serve." Expecting young recruits to play both roles is expecting too much.


The soldiers' proverb that "it is better to be judged by 12 than carried by six" has recently gained new currency among American troops in Afghanistan. For combat soldiers, its meaning is clear: when in doubt, shoot first and ask questions later. While civilians may find this violent mindset shocking, it's important to recognize that we train our soldiers to, in the words of the U.S. Army's soldier's creed, "engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat."

From its very inception, the Unites States military has defended American interests by threatening and, if required, committing violence. In basic training, drill instructors bellow the question, "What makes the green grass grow?", to which new recruits respond by screaming, "Blood -- bright red blood!" and stabbing a dummy in the guts with a bayonet. This is how we train our warriors and how we have done it for over 100 years.

We train our troops to kill, equip them with the world's most effective weapons, and send them to war. Yet in many instances, our leaders then ask these trained warriors to serve as peace officers, a job that involves entirely different expectations and holds them to a different standard. There are special subunits within the military whose members are trained to play both cop and commando, but the very nature of name "special" demonstrates that this is not normal training.

Admittedly, "police actions" are nothing new to U.S. Armed Forces. President Harry Truman used that term to describe the Korean War. In Vietnam, the most notorious of American policing actions, generals (or presidents) declined to bomb certain targets for fear of provoking intervention from China and the USSR. But in Korea and Vietnam, these "police actions" were typically at the strategic level. In Afghanistan, the troops patrolling the streets are expected to both fight as warriors and serve as peace officers at the tactical level. The blurring of this distinction is not without consequences, as young men and women struggle to protect the same people they've, in some instances, been ordered to fight.

Take the example of Private First Class Edward Richmond, Jr., who in 2004 was providing security in a small village outside Kirkuk, Iraq, while his unit searched the village for high-level insurgents. Richmond's squad was tasked with providing security while the rest of the unit cleared the village (a cordon search mission). Richmond's squad leader, Sergeant Jeffrey Waruch, instructed the squad on its rules of engagement: "Shoot any males fleeing the village, but check with [the squad leader] if possible before firing."

When the operation began at daybreak, American soldiers heard gunshots and screaming in both Arabic and English coming from the security line. Richmond noticed a man leaving the city near his position.  Remembering his initial order, Richmond requested permission to engage the target. Waruch later testified that "Edward asked if he could shoot the man." Waruch ordered Richmond not to shoot the fleeing man and instead headed towards him, instructing Richmond to assist him in detaining the fleeing Iraqi.

As the two soldiers approached the Iraqi, he became agitated, and Waruch ordered him to put his arms up. As Waruch went to search the Iraqi, he directed Richmond to stand guard with his rifle ready. Waruch quickly patted the man down, looking for weapons and when he tried to pull his wrist down to handcuff him, the man resisted. Waruch told Richmond to point his weapon at the man and told him to "shoot him if he moves." At that point, the man stopped resisting and Waruch was able to cuff him.

As the two soldiers headed back to their perimeter with their prisoner, the Iraqi man tripped and stumbled into Waruch. Richmond shot one round, hitting the detainee. He later stated that the detainee had jumped at Waruch.

The Iraqi died as a third soldier came to the scene. Without knowing exactly what had happened, the third soldier looked at Richmond and said "you are f---ked." Richmond had been in Iraq for less than three weeks.

At court martial, Richmond was acquitted of unpremeditated murder, but convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to three years, demoted to private, and given a dishonorable discharge. This example demonstrates what happens when soldiers and marines are drilled to be combat killers and then asked to demonstrate the restraint of police officers.

Even more frustrating for his family is that Richmond was not even shown the same grace we allow to law enforcement officers in the United States when their good-faith use of lethal force turns out to be a mistake. According to the official standard currently followed by the FBI, the use of lethal force is deemed a "good shoot" when an "agent has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent or another person" -- even if that "reasonable belief" turns out to be wrong. It is simply unreasonable to hold soldiers serving in a war zone to a higher policing standard than that to which we hold actual police officers serving U.S. cities.

In all fairness, the military has devoted considerable effort and resources to training troops on policing skills before they deploy, and it has tried to emphasize a culture of restraint among the ranks -- most prominent was the recent talk of a "Courageous Restraint Medal." But the idea was ultimately quashed when some in the military and media decried the mixed message it would give to troops in harm's way. ("You have the authority to kill because you are in danger, but please don't.") The change in training and the attempt to transform the culture is likely to have little effect when drill sergeants still walk the firing lines screaming "One shot, one kill" -- hardly an invitation to the kind of restraint in the field that we are now asking of our men and women in uniform.

Moreover, the police and military cultures are supposed to be vastly different (see "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police"). Soldiers use deadly force when confronting the enemy, and their weapons are their main tools in completing this objective.  Police officers, by contrast, are required to try to accomplish their missions without using weapons -- they are trained to exercise deadly force only as a last resort. The military uses violence as a means to an end, while a police officer draws and shoots only to protect himself/herself or others from violence.

There's also a reason that different populations are chosen to serve in each force. Police officers typically must be over 21 and many local police departments require at least an AA degree, recognizing that confronting complex situations on the street requires a certain level of maturity. In the military, by contrast, many soldiers are only 18 or 19 -- and in a platoon, even the lieutenant (the platoon leader/commander) may only be in his or her early 20s.

In wartime, our soldiers operate in an extremely chaotic and confused environment -- every civilian is a potential enemy, every window a possible sniper's nest. The police in U.S. cities (usually) confront a more comprehensible and structured situation -- no more than a few suspects, bystanders who are generally assumed to be friendly or neutral. At war, chaos and lack of structure make it even more difficult for our soldiers to be effective policemen.

Our military has done, and is continuing to do, an amazing job. Iraq and Afghanistan presented ever-shifting situations and our soldiers adapted too many changes on the fly. But our political and military leadership must more carefully examine the additional responsibilities that come with these new environments and understand the unprecedented pressures they're placing on our men and women in uniform.

The views expressed by Rizer are entirely his own, and he does not speak for the Department of Justice or the U.S. Army.