ST. LOUIS — Like many officers involved in deadly force encounters, Darren Wilson said his training took over when he shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.

But what if Wilson had been trained differently?

The national upheaval from Brown’s death, and some others, has put enormous pressure on law enforcement to find ways to control people’s behavior while using less violence. One possibility – simple but repugnant to some officers – is to teach police to back away from certain difficult situations until help can arrive.

The concept is known as “tactical retreat” or sometimes “tactical withdrawal” or “tactical restraint.”

“We add the word ‘tactical,’ and not just ‘retreating’ or ‘giving up,’ because that’s what makes it palatable for police officers,” explained Seth Stoughton, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina. The former Florida officer is a nationally prominent advocate for applying the softer approach.

“It’s basically the choice to work smarter rather than harder.”


Wilson has said he was in his police SUV on Aug. 9 when Brown, standing outside, struggled with him through the vehicle window and Wilson’s gun fired twice. Brown was struck at least once in the hand, and ran. Wilson gave chase and Brown turned back. Wilson then shot him multiple times, explaining later that he feared for his life.

Had Wilson been coached in tactical retreat, Stoughton said, he instead might have stepped on the gas to drive away from the encounter, and kept Brown in sight while waiting for backup.

Wilson “could have been trained to do something different to allow him to apprehend Michael Brown without putting himself in a situation that made him feel deadly force was the only safe response,” Stoughton explained. “Train police officers to avoid putting themselves in danger, and you will see them use less force to get themselves out of danger.

“That’s good for everybody.”

Chiefs of the St. Louis city and county police have said in recent interviews they are reviewing training with the principles of tactical retreat in mind.

But it’s a delicate dance, warned Sam Dotson, the city chief.

“Society has to realize that we pay police officers to keep us safe. And if every criminal knows, ‘If I confront an officer, they will take four steps back, that’s my escape route,’ then that becomes the new norm.”

Tactical retreat can be a hard sell to police traditionally trained to subdue an adversary – and to keep pouring on force until that is accomplished. Most departments have policies that provide discipline for cowardice.


Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, called the tactical retreat concept “cowardice retreat,” and complained that it is “shameful” to consider.

“Why should we have to change law enforcement nationwide to make exceptions for this violent few when what we should be doing is making it harder for this violent few to have such a powerful lobby on their side?” Crocker asked. “Police officers are trying to uphold the laws of society and protect people. Instead, people are labeling us as aggressive and people who need more training.”

A misjudgment with tactical retreat could get an officer killed, said David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who urges caution in the way it’s used.

“If you retreat, you’re giving the guy an opportunity to win the fight, and you have to be bold,” said Klinger, a former Los Angeles officer. “However, if you have the advantage of horsepower, you should break away.

“But Darren Wilson didn’t think that way, because he was never trained in that.”

Wilson did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

He resigned before the Ferguson police could begin tactical-based training, which incorporates the principles of tactical retreat in certain situations, said Chief Thomas Jackson.


Dotson said he believes city officers already show restraint.

Department figures show that officers shot back 12 of the 22 times they were fired upon in the past three years. They fired seven times in the 23 incidents of someone grabbing for their guns and 21 times in 46 occasions of people pointing a gun at them.

“I don’t think people know how dangerous this job is,” Dotson said. “I think this speaks to the discipline officers show. In a society that has so many guns, it’s amazing that we don’t have more police shootings.”

But Stoughton said it’s important to put the dangers of the job into perspective.

He remembers that his academy training in Tallahassee included graphic videos of officers who were killed or beaten. The message, he said, was that officers often die due to their own lack of vigilance.

That approach, he said, turns guardians into warriors.

“If you’re guarding people, you don’t want to club the people you’re supposed to be guarding, but if you are in the warrior mindset, you want to because you’re in a war against something, and that really pushes the idea of talking to people and engaging with the community aside,” he said.

Stoughton suggested that training in tactical retreat could help calm a police mindset he sees as unnecessarily stressful.