Best Defense

Our police should be required to treat those they wound — just as our soldiers are

One day in Baghdad in the spring of 2005, a handful of American Soldiers followed a well-worn footpath across a fallow date palm orchard separating the giant T-walls of the Green Zone from the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) on the banks of the Tigris River.


By Lt. Col. Jay Morse, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

One day in Baghdad in the spring of 2005, a handful of American Soldiers followed a well-worn footpath across a fallow date palm orchard separating the giant T-walls of the Green Zone from the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) on the banks of the Tigris River. Among the Americans were two senior Army infantrymen and an operational law attorney from 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, all there to testify at a preliminary hearing about a gunfight the infantrymen had with two young Iraqi men a few months prior. One of the Iraqis died in that exchange; the other – the man the Americans were there at the CCCI to see – lived. He lived because, despite a gunshot wound that could have been fatal, the injury was triaged and treated by the very men who fired the round that inflicted the wound in the first place. The soldiers who administered first aid were not necessarily acting out of the kindness of their hearts. They were acting in accordance with established law that actually required them to provide care for their enemy.

Soldiers and police have much in common. They sacrifice for the common good, follow an established set of rules and ethics that demands compliance in order to be considered a professional, and, perhaps most notably, are required to move towards danger in the interests of service to society. This is not a natural instinct. Most would agree that it is counterintuitive to put oneself in harm’s way, or to attempt to take another life. Even more counterintuitive is following a rule that requires efforts to save the same life you are trying to end. But soldiers do it, and they do it often. The international laws of war, and more specifically provisions in the Geneva Conventions, require soldiers to not only not leave the wounded and sick without care, but to give them, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention they need. The rule applies to both friendly and enemy fighters, and priority of medical care depends largely on one thing: he who needs the care most gets the care first. You read that correctly: an American Soldier is often obligated to render first aid to a wounded and incapacitated enemy fighter before he does to his own friendly forces.

While it may seem incongruous with the purpose of combat operations – to employ overwhelming power to subdue the enemy – this obligation is just as important as is a soldier’s right to kill. It is a vital humanitarian counter-weight to the authority that allows soldiers to kill the enemy. And despite its seeming incongruity, professional armed forces around the world, like those two sergeants from 1/25 Stryker Brigade, recognize and follow this rule. They routinely extend the hand of humanitarian protection to individuals who only moments earlier were trying to kill them. This ultimate manifestation of the professional warrior is the result of two core aspects of soldier development: routine and realistic training and morally responsible leadership that persistently emphasizes compliance with the rule of law.

This balance between lethal power and humanitarian obligation should extend to any public official entrusted with the authority to employ deadly force in the name of bettering a society. Like the soldier, the police officer must be vested with the authority to use necessary (including, where appropriate, lethal) force. But the first moments after an injury is inflicted are the most crucial to saving a life, and the police officer on the scene is almost always in the best position to render immediate aid. We shouldn’t expect them to be doctors, nurses, and cops all at the same time, but why can’t we ask the same of police officers that we do of soldiers? Why can’t we expect those who have chosen to protect and serve to embrace this fundamental balance between power and humanity?

The recent events in Cleveland, New York, Ferguson and Baltimore illuminate the difficult decisions police officers face on a daily basis, and these high-profile incidents of suspected police indifference to injured suspects may distort a reality that police all over the country regularly make good decisions under extraordinary circumstances. But, as with many events that occur in the public eye, it is perception that matters most, and the perception of a significant portion of America today is that they view the police as indifferent to the suffering of those they subdue. Video of deadly encounters between police officers and citizens, often under circumstances that suggest the use of excessive force, is shocking. But more shocking are the post-incident scenes of police officers who appear indifferent to the plight of the injured suspect.

Society should demand that law enforcement officers abide by the same standards of humanitarian treatment as those required of and routinely implemented by soldiers around the world. Teach our law enforcement officers basic first aid (as many jurisdictions already do), but require them to provide treatment to the wounded until more qualified personnel arrive, rather than simply requiring them to call for medical attention. State legislatures and Congress should enact laws protecting police officers who attempt to save someone’s life – specifically one suspected of a crime – from exposure to civil suit and financial liability. In addition, Congress should establish national training guidance for police that continues to focus on when and how to use force, but also incorporates instruction on the international standards for humane treatment of those wounded in the execution of lawful police actions. While regulation of police is a quintessential state and local government function, Congress does have a legitimate interest in requiring this type of training as a precondition for provision of federal aid or discounted equipment.

Violent encounters between police and citizenry is an inevitable aspect of enforcing the law, as is it is in warfare. But what need not be inevitable is indifference towards the suffering of those injured by such violence. The U.S. military regularly prepares service members to come to the aid of fallen adversaries, and has done so for years. We have learned that better standards and training help soldiers to understand the ultimate value in treating your enemy with honor and humanity, even when one might feel they don’t deserve it. Making police departments more racially diverse or representative of the community is an admirable, and necessary, change to our police departments, as is teaching officers that necessary force does not always mean deadly force. But real change comes when communities feel like they’re being treated as human beings, and that the rules apply to police – just like they do to Soldiers.

Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse is a Judge Advocate in the United States Army’s International and Operational Law Division. The views and opinions expressed are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Army.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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