Warrior Policing and Sandra Bland’s Arrest

It’s probably going to be a while before we have any definitive insight into the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail. The police are calling it a suicide, but the prosecutor is proceeding as though murder is entirely possible.

But there’s fresh controversy after a dashcam video recording of the encounter with Bland by the Texas trooper who arrested her for–well, it’s not entirely clear whether she was arrested for failing to signal a lane change or for refusing to cooperate with the trooper who kept demanding she get out of her car. The video shows clear signs of being doctored.

Doctored or not, the video pretty clearly shows the trooper treating physical control of Bland and verbal submission on her part as essential to the traffic stop. And so she’s put in the slammer and subsequently dies.

This is about as good an example as you’ll ever see of what University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton (himself an ex-cop) called the “warrior” model of police training and self-concept in a piece at Ten Miles Square back in April:

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….”

Officers learn to both verbally and physically control the space they operate in. They learn that it is essential to set the proper tone for an encounter, and the tone that best preserves officer safety is widely thought to be one of “unquestioned command.” Even acting friendly, officers are told, can make them a target. But like the use of physical force, the assertive manner in which officers set the tone of encounter can also set the stage for a negative response or a violent interaction—one that was, from the start, avoidable. From the warrior perspective, the solution is simple: the people with whom officers interact must accede, respecting officers’ authority by doing what they are told. The failure to comply is confirmation that the individual is an enemy for the warrior to vanquish, physically if necessary. And remember that officers are trained to expect threats. Our brains are wired so that we see what we expect to see; given their training, it’s no surprise that officers react to threats that don’t actually exist. The result is avoidable violence.

This sure sounds like how the trooper in Bland’s case was behaving.

Perhaps Texas troopers should look into the “Guardian” model of policing recommended by Stoughton, which emphasizes learning the skills associated with de-escalating potentially violent encounters, especially when the threat to public safety is minimal–you know, like someone’s who’s changed lanes without signaling.

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.