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S.W.A.T Mediators: Just Enough Force

To respond to hostage, terrorist and other crises threatening public safety, police and military forces have developed highly trained and heavily equipped tactical units known as S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics.) The first such known unit was commissioned in 1968 by the Los Angeles Police Department at the epicenter of the nation’s racially charged urban unrest. Since then, S.W.A.T. teams have been recruited, equipped and trained in virtually every metropolitan center and military operation across the country and around the world.

As ordinary citizens we watch the news footage as armored vehicles, black clad and highly specialized police officers converge on a crisis. Our focus is on the weapons, but what we cannot see are the tactics.

My son has a brother-in-law who is in the F.B.I. That’s all he has ever wanted to do. Geoff is trained in counter-terrorism techniques and he can’t tell us what he does (or he would have to kill us). Before he was a Fibbie, he was a police officer in a Dallas suburb where he signed up for all the law enforcement tactical training he could get and became a member of his department’s S.W.A.T. team. I have other friends who have trained with S.W.A.T. teams or have been embedded with this unique brand of police force for “ride-alongs”. They have shared numerous insights with me.

What strikes me most about these crisis response teams is not the unbelievable weaponry they possess and are trained to use, but how seldom they choose to use it. The motto in most S.W.A.T. teams is “just enough force”. In other words, they are intensely prepared in the use of the most modern and potentially lethal equipment, but their most important training is in how not to use it. The Yuma 3:10 image of vast numbers of trained killers unleashing a relentless fusillade of hot metal until no one is left standing is exactly the opposite of what S.W.A.T teams are trained to do. They are trained to the point that they don’t have to think about it. In fact, they can’t think about it. If they took the time to think about it, the probabilities are great that someone would die. That is exactly what they exist to prevent.

All our instincts in crisis and conflict are usually wrong. S.W.A.T. officers have to learn to be counter-intuitive in crisis. That is what they practice relentlessly. Escalating conflict is our cultural, neurological and physiological norm. To be effective in dealing with the conflict situations faced by ourselves or others, we must practice doing the opposite . . . without having to think about it.

Effective S.W.A.T. team members learn how to talk an emotionally unhinged violent perpetrator down from the ledge, give up the hostages, to take their finger off the trigger and walk awayfrom the bomb. “Coming on strong” only escalates the crisis. S.W.A.T. officers take defensive positions with their offensive power out of sight of the perpetrators. Using the calming yet authentic voice of Uncle Fred, hostage negotiators seek to convince the most violent criminal or the terrorist “with nothing to lose” that abandoning their violent intentions is the most valuable choice they could make. The effective negotiators do so without threats, but with a clear definition of the boundaries they will not cross.

S.W.A.T. officers clearly are not pacifists. Their “tactics” are not “peace at all costs”. Counter-terrorism, hostage negotiation and crisis management works because practitioners of this highly skilled art know how to use “just enough force” . . . no more, no less.

Achieving peace in the face of violence requires polarity management of the highest order. (See: Polarity Management: The Creative Power of the Conceptual Age) Meeting real or potential violence with unconditional peace encourages the dark to overcome the light. Peacemakers know how to use “just enough force” to prevent exploitation and incentivize resolution.

When Linda Ragsdale was confronted with the horror of the Mumbai attacks on Thanksgiving Day 2008, she used “just enough force” to save four lives including her own. (See: Mumbai: Take Two) Linda was in no position to “take down” the terrorists, but she didn’t idly allow the intended massacre to proclaim mission accomplished. She forcefully directed her table mates to get under the table, she screamed at them to “get down” and “play dead”. She threw herself over her friend Michael who had been wounded in the first round of indiscriminate firing. At great risk to herself, she used “just enough force” to save lives.

In our work in conflict management we teach students the power of Dr. Robert Axlerod’s roadmap to avoid exploitation. Dr. Axlerod is a mathematician, political scientist and game theorist at the University of Michigan (“M, Go Blue!”) who prescribes the path to take when one finds herself in a competitive exchange or a crisis encounter to avoid losing and how to set the stage for mutual gain. He argues that beginning cooperatively is the correct first move, intended to signal a willingness to work together, but not at great risk. After the other side has shown her intentions by a counter move, one is to “respond in kind”. A competitive response receives a competitive reply . . . without escalating the conflict. The response is intended to set the boundaries beyond which we will not be exploited. Cooperative people have the most difficulty responding in kind. We all know you can’t change a competitor’s tactics by “out-nicing” him. A cooperative response to competitive behavior only rewards competitive behavior. However, when the other side gets the message that competition begets competition (without escalation) and chooses to move into the cooperative mode, Axlerod advises to forgive . . . immediately and completely . . . and respond cooperatively. Competitive people have the most difficulty at this stage. “Can’t I get my pound of flesh, the sweet smell of revenge?” Axlerod, indicates that’s the best way to lose the exchange. (See: Revenge: A Subhuman Instinct) Playing out Axlerod’s methodology consistently and flexibly provides the greatest guarantee that a competitive situation will not become exploitative.

Sounds like S.W.A.T members have been reading Axlerod. Perhaps more conflict managers will learn the same lessons. Meeting force with no force is the road to exploitation. Meeting force with more force escalates and delays any possibility of resolution. Meeting force with “just enough force” . . . no more, no less . . . is the path to the rational management of conflict.

Jesus is often cited as the model Peacemaker. If so, he followed the “just enough force” approach to peacemaking. To the religious power mongers, he confronted, he cajoled, he criticized. To the disenfranchised he encouraged, he empathized, but he never tolerated bad behavior. To the abusive moneychangers in the temple he violently threw over their tables of exploitation and chased them from the sacred place with a whip. “Just enough force” . . . no more, no less.

Great mediators know the value of using “just enough force”, preventing one party from being exploited, reality testing the false premise of a long held position and occasionally challenging the willingness of a party to continue the fight.

Want to be a peacemaker? Can you learn to use “just enough force”?


Larry Bridgesmith

Dr. Larry Bridgesmith serves as Senior Fellow, founding Executive Director and Associate Professor at the Institute for Conflict Resolution at Lipscomb University and as President of Creative Collaborations, LLC. He is of counsel to Miller & Martin, PLLC, a law firm with offices in Atlanta, Nashville and Chattanooga. In these… MORE >

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