When Green and Blue Collide: The Relative Superiority Theory and Law Enforcement Incidents

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Harley LenArt


We sleep safe in our beds because rough men [and women] stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.
~ George Orwell
In “21st Century Firearms Training,” David Griffith claims, “Criminals are getting smarter, faster, and more deadly than ever before.” When criminals are better armed and more skilled with their weapons than law enforcement officers, their disparity of superiority leads to death and injury. The past three decades have seen a significant increase in suspects using weapons that had not been readily available to the public and are more lethal. Advanced weapon use leads to one crucial point: suspects are increasingly outgunning law enforcement officers. High-powered rifles can engage targets from a greater distance with greater accuracy than handguns. Suspects are learning that conducting attacks in urban areas increases the likelihood of a higher death toll. In this setting, as the Las Vegas incident illustrates, large caches of weapons and high-powered rifles give them an advantage.
Scholars and practitioners alike must not simply equate police work with warfare, as civil-military fusion, also often described as the militarization of the police, imperils democracy, civil liberties, and ultimate police effectiveness. This literature review surveys the dominant scholarship on civil-military fusion to establish the very narrow and specific applicability of McRaven’s battlefield theory to police response to mass shooters. The success of military philosophies being applied to law enforcement operations leads critics to believe that civilian law enforcement is becoming too militarized. Police militarization does not have to be viewed through a negative lens. In the current threat environment, a law enforcement agency without some degree of militarization is in jeopardy of being outgunned and outmatched. However, civilian law enforcement can make some well-bounded and thoughtful use of military ideas, equipment, and tactics if it considers the constraints that go with policing fellow citizens in an active community committed to safety.
Law enforcement is facing a disadvantage problem that is similar to military special operation’s primary function of overcoming unfavorable odds. Retired Admiral William McRaven developed the relative superiority theory and the six principles of special operations. The theory’s basis is the need for operators to achieve superiority at a specific place and time by virtue of surprise, speed, and violence of action. Fire superiority is the firepower of a greater effect, in its accuracy and volume than that of a suspect, which can lead to making possible advances against the suspect without suffering heavy losses. The relative superiority theory can be applied to law enforcement incidents to explain how law enforcement is at a firepower and tactical disadvantage compared to suspects.
This thesis answers the question, how can the relative superiority theory help determine when and how police officers lose or gain superior advantage when they are outgunned by suspects? The main thrust of this thesis is to focus on the safety and tactics of a patrol officer. To answer the research question, the thesis uses a systematic comparative case study method focused on applying the relative superiority theory to each case. The cases include the North Hollywood shootout and a 2009 Pittsburg officer-involved shooting. A comprehensive comparison of these two incidents allows patterns, successes, and deficiencies to be identified. This work does not delve into specific suspect motivating factors nor which interventions may have helped or stopped the incident from happening.
The two case studies varied dramatically in terms of who achieved relative superiority and with which principles law enforcement was successful. The stripped findings show that the Los Angeles Police Department was successful in achieving relative superiority and utilizing the six principles during the North Hollywood shootout that resulted in only the two suspects being killed. Conversely, the Pittsburgh Police Department (PPD) did not achieve relative superiority, lost three police officers that day, and only ended the incident once the suspect decided to surrender. The relative superiority principles are crucial in overcoming and subduing a suspect in a critical incident.
Law enforcement administrations, researchers, and trainers should utilize the relative superiority theory and its principles as an analytical model to identify areas of success and failure in patrol response. McRaven claimed the relative superiority theory could be used to predict the future of military special operations warfare. Similarly, applying the relative superiority theory to previous law enforcement incidents will allow the law enforcement community to make educated predictions about the future of law enforcement incidents. The analysis of an incident can also identify areas lacking sufficient training and equipment, such as firepower, as demonstrated in both case studies.
The relative superiority theory should be used as an analytical model to review incidents where the “bullets are already flying:” so patrol officers can improve their execution and response to incidents in which they are already at a disadvantage. Instead of prolonging an incident, and possibly waiting for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), patrol officers should learn how to use the relative superiority principles to maximize their probability of success.
Transferring a military theory to the civilian law enforcement realm does not have to be viewed as negative police militarization. The recommendation of using the relative superiority theory, which has traditionally been applied to military special operations, does not cross the line of transforming every day patrol officers into “Robocops.” Utilizing an analytical model to review law enforcement incidents can stay within the confines of the Constitutional rights afforded to American citizens.
Suspects capitalize on using unconventional techniques and inexpensive measures to confront law enforcement in ways they cannot match. The suspects blur the lines between crimes and acts of war, which leaves the battlespace open between conventional law enforcement and specialized military operations. It is crucial for law enforcement agencies to learn from previous incidents to improve their future patrol response, increase effectiveness, and ensure the safety of patrol officers. McRaven’s relative superiority theory is an invaluable tool to achieve these desired outcomes.

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