Sun Tzu for 21st century cops
“When it is time to strike, strike like thunderbolts from the nine-layered heavens.” That is what Sun Tzu said more than 2,500 years ago. Except for the literary flare, the meaning is the same as something all police officers have heard said by their defensive tactics instructor: “Never spar with your opponent.”
Sun Tzu’s (Also Sun Wu) "The Art of War" is one of the most widely distributed, discussed, footnoted, translated, and argued texts in history. It is utilized in today’s world by successful tacticians in the military, law enforcement, and even in business circles.
Sun Tzu might not be a recommended read for academy students, but after a number of years of careful study and real life application of tactics, Sun Tzu can speak to any police officer or tactical officer who desires to survive their career, their next shift, their next call, or even quite possibly the next moment.
An example of how current Sun Tzu can be is his assertion that success in a confrontation begins with, “moral strength, intellect, benevolence, and righteousness.”
Policing in America has not achieved absolute perfection, but most police officers on the street are benevolent, righteous “Good Guys” and “Good Gals,” looking for the “Bad Guys.” The vast majority of officers strive to serve with honor. They wear it as proudly as their badge.
Here are a few more tenets from more than 2,500 years ago that still speak to the tactics needed to win in today’s world of law enforcement:
“To subdue without fighting is the acme of skill.”
An integral response to any tactical situation is to look to be the indomitable professional. This discourages resistance, whether you are talking about an officer who looks to be a professional force with proper back-up, or a SWAT team who are not merely present, but they are a presence. Their expertise (or perceived expertise) encourages submission in many instances.
To talk a suspect into submission is always preferred and law enforcement officers at all levels are becoming master communicators with professional communication tactics acquired in training. Patrol officers are trained in “Verbal Judo,” and SWAT Team members are highly trained in crisis negotiation, with skills in empathetic listening designed to subdue without fighting.
TASER is a tool that has prevented as many confrontations as it has ended. In many cases the promise of the impending deployment of the TASER has convinced many a suspect to come along peacefully rather than engage in futile resistance.
“To rely on rustics and not prepare is the greatest of all crimes. To be prepared beforehand for every contingency is the greatest of virtues.”
“Rustics” 2,500 years ago were the farmers who laid down their implements of husbandry during times of conflict and were handed a spear and placed in the front line of an army with little or no training. A rustic was the opposite of professional.
Administrators are more committed than ever to obtaining and maintaining highly trained personnel. The days of strapping on a gun and a badge and sending cops out on the street are gone. The level of expertise and education, sitting behind the steering wheel of squads across the nation is higher than ever before in history of this country. The days of the “ROD,” or “Rustic on duty,” are long gone and will not be returning.
“Strike when victory is assured.”
One of the biggest decisions for an officer on the street, or an officer in charge of a SWAT Team is “should we engage or not engage? Should we contact or contain?”
Some times the suspect leaves no other option in the case of a sudden assault of an officer or a potential victim an officer is sworn to protect. When possible engaging a suspect(s) should be a tactical decision made, when your odds of winning are based on your superior skills, equipment, positioning, attitude, and personnel.
“Avoid strong and attack weak.”
There is a time to talk and a time to engage with hands-on control. There is time for hands-on control and a time to deploy a TASER. There is a time to have a TASER in your hand and then a time to have a handgun in your hand. There is a time to be carrying a handgun and a time to be shouldering a long gun. There is a time to be knocking on the door with a warrant in your hand and a time to have a “no knock warrant” in hand, while a SWAT Team is breaching a door.
Police officers today realize that winning is the only option and superior tactics must be utilized to win. Winning with your strength is not only about knowing how to do all of the above, but when to utilize your most effective tools and tactics with justification at the moment to achieve the best outcome.
“Go into emptiness, strike voids, bypass what he defends hit him where he does not expect you.”
When moving in to make contact if he is prepared to the front, you come in from behind. It is the simple concept of flanking the opponent and coming in from where he least expects you. Sun Tzu spoke of a need for the “Cheng,” or fixing element that held the opponent in place, and the “Chi” or flanking element.
In today’s law enforcement tactical instructors stress the need to establish a contact officer and a cover officer, who flanks the suspect. In SWAT operations the fixing element would be the officers on the inner perimeter and the flanking element would be the entry team.
“The expert is divinely mysterious. He is inaudible. Thus he is the master of his enemy’s fate.”
Stealth! The ability to move around a suspect, through an area or to a suspect without detection can mean the difference between success, and failure of an operation. Equip yourself and practice to be able to move with stealth as an individual or as team.
“Good commanders command with wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage,and strictness.”
Some things never change. If you think of the best commanders you have ever had you will probably be able to list these as their virtues. If you are a good commander strive always to improve and be a great commander. You can make a positive impact on your department by making a positive impact on your personnel.
Sun Tzu felt discipline was essential. Ask yourself are you disciplined? If you discipline yourself no one else will have to discipline you. A good commander not only knows how to effectively use discipline, but they set an example.
“Know yourself and know your enemy and in a thousand battles you will know no peril.”
Know the suspect, the terrain, his capabilities, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses his determination and those of his accomplices. Know his equipment and weapons and his skill level. Know these same things about your self, beat partners and team-mates and you will also know success.
Sun Tzu’s Five Essentials for victory:
1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
3. He will win whose forces are animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
4. He will win who prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by a sovereign.”
Ask yourself, do these apply today?
Historians will argue whether the person who wrote The Art of War was a general named Sun Wu, or (as some suspect) it was written by many generals. They will argue whether it was written at one time or compiled over a period of time. One thing that can not be argued is that any concept, or tactic for victory that was espoused over 2,500 years ago, which is still valid today is timeless, invaluable and is indeed a principle.
Here is one example from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, of a 2,500 year old principle that fits law enforcement today. If you have room in your duty bag for only one of Sun Tzu’s principals take this one with you:
“Victory is secured before the fight.”
- Use of Force