Police: Warriors Or Guardians?

The almost constant examples we are experiencing of police officers gunning down unarmed suspects of late–or treating the communities they patrol as enemy bastions to be approached with overwhelming military force–are a particular shock to those of us who thought the principles of “community policing” had taken deeper root in the culture of law enforcement agencies. That’s clearly not the case. And in fact, to get back to something like community policing will require a serious reorientation of police training. The task is explained in depth at Ten Miles Square today by Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who is also a former police officer.

Becoming a “warrior” on hair-trigger to answer violence with violence has become central to police training, says Stoughton:

In this worldview, officers are warriors combatting unknown and unpredictable—but highly lethal—enemies. They learn to be afraid. Officers don’t use that word, of course. Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But officers learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant because they are afraid, and they afraid because they’re taught to be.

As a result, officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making. Every individual, every situation — no exceptions. A popular police training text offers this advice: “As you approach any situation, you want to be in the habit of looking for cover[] so you can react automatically to reach it should trouble erupt.” A more recent article puts it even more bluntly: “Remain humble and compassionate; be professional and courteous — and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

Add in racial stereotypes and limited experience with the community an officer is “protecting” and you can understand how regular interactions between cops and citizens have entered a frightening world remote from the trust-based assumptions of community policing.

Stoughton suggests replacing the whole “warrior” mentality inculcated by police training with a self-concept of “Community Guardians.”

[W]hat’s the difference? Both Warriors and Guardians seek to protect the communities they serve, of course, but the guardian mindset takes both a broader and a longer view of how to achieve that goal. Put simply, the guardian mindset prioritizes service over crime-fighting, and it values the dynamics of short-term encounters as a way to create long-term relationships. It instructs officers that their interactions with community members must be more than legally justified; they must also be empowering, fair, respectful, and considerate. It emphasizes communication over command, cooperation over compliance, and legitimacy over authority. In the use-of-force context, the Guardian mindset emphasizes restraint over control, stability over action. But the concept is even broader; it seeks to protect civilians not just from crime and violence, but also from indignity and humiliation.

Stoughton offers some practical steps for how to train police officers to be “Guardians” rather than “Warriors,” including special training in how to de-escalate confrontations and how to safely exercise tactical restraint. But the starting point is admitting we have a real problem when public servants are trained to think of the citizenry as a mob of potential killers.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.