Incident Strategy and Tactics: The Baby Diaper Analogy

Is it more important to be a kick-ass gunfighter? ...or to have the wisdom and understanding on how to stay out of a gunfight in the first place? And on which of these things should police instructors being focusing their efforts? This debate isn't limited to only the use of police deadly force; it's one that permeates law enforcement education and training as a whole.

I have two children in diapers. The older one is becoming more and more independent. After 6500+ diaper-changes, he's understanding the operation. So much so, he's now trying to change it himself! As a parent, I thought that was pretty cool and convenient. I even considered some of the "training" I could provide him to expedite the process.
Then I came to my senses. A self-diaper-changing toddler might be quite labor-saving. But a teenager in diapers is definitely not attractive (nor cost-effective!). At some point, this kid would have to learn how to not crap his pants. And that time was to be sooner than later.

Then my mind flipped to police training. And I asked myself: Do we, as police instructors, spend too much time teaching our students how to "change their own diapers" rather than "potty training" them? I contend yes.

Incident Strategy

Incident Strategy differs from organizational strategy. Organizational strategy answers questions like: How do we handle the street gang problem? What do we do about the heroin epidemic? How can we develop stronger citizen-police relationships? The answers to these dilemmas then may drive Incident Strategy.

Incident Strategy is about HOW to resolve a single police incident, investigation, or call for service. These incidents range is size and scope from: traffic stops, to burglar alarms, to fleeing armed robbers, to drug search warrants, to suicidal person standoffs, to active killers. How delicately or aggressively or methodically or haphazardly a police officer handles these incidents is affected by his/her "operational philosophy"...which is influenced by his/her agency culture. (I recommend you read my "Police Operational Philosophy" post to analyze the issues of strategic tendencies.)

At it's root, police strategy is about whether to: push or hold, talk or use force, enter or contain, chase or surround, go fast or go slow, open the door or keep it closed, back off or move in, wait for specialists or do something now with who and what you have, call them back to you or swarm towards them, and at it's root....Act or Stabilize.

Police tactics are HOW the officers carry out the incident strategy. HOW does the officer use force? HOW does the officer open the door? HOW does the team push in? HOW does the team make the rescue? HOW do the partners search the building? HOW do the officers coordinate the felony stop?

Strategizing is a mental planning or decision-making step; Tactics are the physical implementation aspects of the resolution. There is a tight relationship between the two. They are related, but they are not the same.

Tactics can also be of the skill/equipment variety. HOW does the officer shoot? HOW does the officer move? HOW does the officer utilize cover and concealment? HOW does the officer use distance to his/her advantage? HOW does the officer use calming verbal and non-verbal communication?

Tactical training is the cool stuff. It's the sort of stuff that's being taught by former military Special Operations soldiers. It's time on the rifle range. It's fighting skills in the dojo. It's Tasering your partner in the training mat room. It's camouflage and helmets and ammo and jargon and LED flashlights and barking police dogs and flashbangs.

A legal, ethical, logical, and safe strategy is more critical than the tactics that will carry it out. In many cases, a sound strategy covers for lacking tactical abilities. Coming from a SWAT officer, that might sound heretical, or at least ironic. But I strongly believe it. Sadly, there aren't many courses that discuss police incident strategy. It's hard to score. It raises blood pressure in heated debate. It challenges many traditions in our profession. It's too abstract for some. It's too intellectual for others. It's too boring and unnecessary for those who know-it-all. ("When can we get on the range? I have new MOLLE gear to try out!")

Any police officer knows the officer on his/her department who can escalate any arrest situation into a force incident. For several years, I was that officer. I prided myself on great tactics. And thankfully so. Because it was necessary to mop up for shitty strategy. But now after coming to an understanding about the relationship between and prioritization of strategy and tactics, my on-duty actions look quite different than those of years ago.

Courts (both those of the judicial system as well as those of "public opinion") no longer accept bad strategy. Cops who fire at car drivers who were about to "run me over" are being told that standing in front of the car was a bad "strategy." Did the officer fear for his/her life? Absolutely. Did the officer place him/herself in that jeopardy? Possibly.
But I fear this issue of "Strategy before Tactics" might be only one symptom of a larger problem of mis-prioritizing training tasks and theories.

Infographic on importance of "potty training" in police work.

When officers didn't use a logical problem-solving process during an incident, it becomes that much more difficult to craft a logical (and legally defensible) police report. When officers don't have a set of "stabilizing" tactics (such as verbal communication skills), they resort only to what they do have...physical skills and equipment. When officers cannot control their emotional responses with sound and rational justification, they have to make decisions in compressed time constraints. When an officer's poor strategy cause a gunshot to the officer, s/he has to rely upon sound rescue and medical aid tactics. When an officer drives too fast.....when an officer doesn't wear a ballistic vest....when an officer doesn't call for a perimeter on the radio.....when an officer needlessly escalates the situation.....when a narcotics team always kick in the door on a raid....when the K9 handler sets his/her dog loose too early....

When all these things happen, officers are forced to change their own diaper.


Maybe I'm off-mark on this assessment. Maybe there's more "big picture" concept-based training out there that I've been missing. But my finger is on the pulse of what's happening....both in training academies and on the street. And I'm not totally convinced this way of thinking is being pushed effectively to our people.

This is "risk management" at it's best. This diaper changing analogy is a useful tool to challenge our training programs and systems. It's also a way that we can prioritize the questions we ask in debriefing our training drills and real life incidents. Maybe we've been neglecting certain aspects of training. Maybe we've been purposely avoiding these conversations for fear of being ostracized by our peers or being labeled a sellout. Maybe we aren't confident enough to stand up for our beliefs or don't have the knowledge to construct a rational case in the argument. Now is the time for us to make a commitment to learn more about the differences in and relationships between strategy and tactics. (If you're not going to take me up on my challenge or offer to help, at least get your folks the ammo and report writing training they'll need. Up your insurance policy. And throw in some Huggies or Pampers too.)

But always keep in mind that NOTHING is absolutely avoidable. And I hope none of my readers even begin to assume that. Not all prevention works; we still need to have the cure on hand.

Shit happens. Maybe I'll grab my wet wipes and head to the range today.

Stay tuned to a followup post: The Importance of Teaching Your People How to Change Their Own Diaper.


Louis Hayes is a co-developer of The Illinois Modellaw enforcement operations system (LEOpSys) and moderates several courses rooted in its theory and concepts. He is a 16-year police officer, currently assigned to a multi-agency tactical unit in Chicagoland. Lou authors this blog between diaper-changings (his kids'...not his own) and lessons to his kids on the art and science of Tactical Philosophy. A full compilation of articles on The Illinois Model can be found here.

If you like our ideas, follow us on Twitter at @TheILModel, "like" us on Facebook at The Illinois Model, or join our secure group on LinkedIn.