The Tie That Binds Police Shootings and the NRA: Warrior Cops

Yesterday Steven Waldman wrote an important article here at the Washington Monthly. He suggests that law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement should team up to work against the NRA’s opposition to common sense gun safety measures.

Police need gun control — and gun control advocates need the police. The only times in recent memory when gun control has happened have been when liberals teamed up with law enforcement. The power of grieving moms hasn’t worked, but the activism of police has. Police support was crucially important in passing the 1994 ban on assault weapons. And the Brady Bill passed in part because 120 uniformed officers walked through the Capitol handing out buttons that read “Cops Know Seven Days Can Save a Life.”

I totally agree. The two groups share a lot in common and would make a powerful force for change if they worked together.

But we also need to acknowledge that – for about the last 20-30 years – there has been a struggle going on about the appropriate role of police departments. One way to describe the different sides of that disagreement is the recent proposition that police officers should return to being guardians instead of warriors. That difference can be dramatized via images.

Guardians:

Warriors

In writing about why the Baton Rouge police officers look like they’re dressed for war, Thomas Gibbons-Neff talks about the difference between a state-centric and a citizen-centric approach.

According to Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst, the resurgence of military equipment and heavy-handed tactics in Baton Rouge is the byproduct of a state-centric approach to policing, one of the two policing philosophies most commonly seen in the United States.

In Baton Rouge’s case, Fritz says, the police are there to disperse protesters and protect themselves.

This is opposite of what has been seen in Dallas in the days both before and after Thursday’s killing of five officers there, according to Fritz. “They’re there to protect the citizens first and then themselves,” he said of Dallas’s citizen-centric approach.

Back in the early 90’s when my job meant collaborating with our local police department we used to talk a lot about community policing. I watched up close and personal as a new chief began to change the culture of our local department from a warrior model to a guardian model. One of his deputy-chiefs once said that the department would be where it needed to be when over half the officers were women because policing is ultimately about negotiating and women tend to be better at that than men.

Just as departments all over the country were beginning to change this kind of focus, 9/11 happened and gave the warrior mentality a great boost. What we saw in Ferguson and the image up above of Baton Rouge officers is a result.

The mindset that ties the message of the NRA to a warrior mentality (a state-centric approach) is one that says that dominance via the use of force (and violence) is the way we protect ourselves. That sets up an ugly feedback loop where the two feed off of each other. The more people are “packing,” the more police officers feel the need to be warriors. In other words, the people we ask to “protect and serve” become the people who view themselves to be at war with us. As Gibbons-Neff points out, that didn’t even work out very well for the military when dealing with a counter-insurgency in Iraq.

Friedman compared the Baton Rouge police’s response to the protests to his time conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. The units that tried to meet civil uprisings with force usually found themselves in a “downward spiral” when it came to gaining the community’s trust.

“Units that strove to have good relationships with the community usually incurred more risks but generally had a better outcome,” Friedman said. “Baton Rouge is making a lot of mistakes, and they look ridiculous.”

A first step in any attempt at a collaboration between law enforcement and BLM would be for the former to unequivocally embrace the guardian (civic-centered) approach to policing. From what I’ve seen, that only happens when those in charge (police chiefs and local leaders) take the lead – much as Chief David Brown has done in Dallas. That will likely ignite blowback from within the department, which is when the community needs to be clear about what they want and have their leader’s back.

One final thing to keep in mind: When Donald Trump touts himself as “the law and order candidate,” and says that we need to give power back to the police, he is signaling support for the warrior model – much as he voices support for dictators who control via dominance and force.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.