Priority of Life

Priority of Life

Posted by Matt Little on 28th May 2022

“Power is no blessing in itself, except when it is used to protect the innocent.” - Johnathan Swift

As of this writing, our nation is reeling in the aftermath of an active shooting in a rural Texas elementary school. Politicians, journalists, and activists are attempting to exploit the tragedy for their own agendas. Parents are grieving, and in their grief they are understandably questioning the law enforcement response. If accounts are to be believed, there was both heroism and risk aversion on display by law enforcement as the event unfolded. I can’t speak to the truth of what happened, I wasn’t there. But I feel very strongly about how such incidents should be handled.

When you take an oath as a police officer, you are accepting the responsibility of valuing others’ lives above your own. Your response to an incident should be dictated by the priority of life doctrine, rather than concern for your own safety. Priority of life is a term used by SWAT teams for a doctrine that determines how the team will choose the appropriate tactic on an objective. In the priority of life template, there are several levels of value placed on the lives of those on scene. The highest value is the victims and bystanders, followed by other law enforcement not on the team. Of next importance is the SWAT team, and the lowest priority is the life of the offender.

This scale of value is at it’s heart pragmatic. Why should you place the same value on an individual attempting to harm innocent victims as on the law enforcement officer honorably serving his community? It’s pragmatic on the flip side as well. If I can’t place the lives of innocent children above my own as a policeman, then I don’t deserve the title.

What this doctrine means for decision making is that we assume more risk when we are protecting innocent life than when we are simply apprehending a violent criminal or executing a search warrant. If the mission is what’s called a barricaded subject, where an offender or offenders is inside a structure but no hostages or non-combatants are present with them, why put officer’s lives at unnecessary risk? In a narcotics search warrant, why place evidence at a higher priority than officers’ lives? In these situations, it is completely rational and reasonable to make tactical decisions that prioritize officer safety.

In a hostage rescue a SWAT team assumes more risk when they make entry, prioritizing the lives of the hostages above their own. And the decision to make entry is a balancing act. Assaulting too early or too late can lower the chances of successful hostage rescue, and the correct timing depends on multiple factors. But the decision to wait or not isn’t based in officer safety at all. It’s solely about the safety of the hostages.

And the most time-sensitive situation mission of all, an active shooter like the one in Texas, demands instant and aggressive response to save lives. Officers make entry as soon as they can, and move rapidly towards the sound of gunfire. Any other response costs innocent lives, and that is unconscionable. If you can’t accept that responsibility you have no business wearing a badge.