The U.S. Police Warrior/Military Mindset
The police warrior-military mindset started as a narrow concept during deadly confrontations. However, it has expanded to become the prevailing culture.
Supporters of the warrior-military mindset believe it is critical to officer and public safety.
However, many police professionals and criminologists believe that the warrior-military mindset actually makes officers less safe by creating avoidable violence. Because violence is rare in police-citizen contacts (1 out of 100), the warrior-military mindset can trigger violent reactions from the public. That is evident today with the riots and calls to defund the police.
Treating every encounter with a warrior-military mindset, and every citizen as a potential enemy, doesn’t build cooperation and trust in the community. If the community doesn’t cooperate with the police, their job is more dangerous.
One officer asked, “If we are warriors, who are we at war with?”
This military warrior mindset, and the use of military equipment, has resulted in disasters.
In 1985, the LAPD used a military armored personnel carrier with a battering ram to crash through the wall of the wrong house. The California Supreme Court banned the practice because of the risk of injury and death caused by collapsing walls and ceilings, exposed electrical wires, and broken gas lines.
In 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department used a military satchel of C-4 plastic explosive to bomb a bunker on the roof of a house. The explosion and resulting fire destroyed 60 homes, and a dozen people burned to death.
International Perception of American Police
Here are some international perceptions and stereotypes of American police.
- They act like a military force.
- They wear black, Nazi S.S. style uniforms, decorated with military memorabilia like badges, ribbons, medallions and patches.
- They wear a large black leather belt carrying an intimidating array of handcuffs, batons, pepper spray, tasers, prominent guns and spare ammunition.
- They show up at a scene in threatening black-and-white muscle cars with all sorts of insignias, light bars, and large black push bars in front.
- They have military-skinhead style buzz cuts and wear Robocop sunglasses.
- When they arrive at a scene they demand: “Who called 9-1-1?” “What’s going on here!”
- American cops come to the scene like alien invaders.
One international journalist explained: “American cops are overly militaristic. They are overly concerned with simply establishing their authority by intimidation, threats and force as opposed to striking the posture of an honest broker between disputants. Consequently, in America, there is a growing sense of Us vs. Them. Ultimately, this will result in the taxpayers viewing their police as alien occupiers. There will be bad results all around.”
An American Criminology Professor said, “Officers in the US are much more militarized than other western countries. We do on average have more aggressive policing than our peers.”
Americans have become so used to police misconduct and controversial shootings dominating the headlines that it’s easy to forget that in European countries it’s extremely rare for the police to shoot people.
Of course, American culture is more violent. Unarmed English constables might not survive on American streets.
Furthermore, police training in American averages between 4-6 months. In most European countries police training is 3-4 years.
Because of the limited time for training in American, a big chunk is devoted to street survival and use of firearms.
Television and movies reinforce the perceptions and stereotypes of American police as military-style warriors. These include: “Cops,” “Law and Order,” “Dirty Harry,” “Lethal Weapon,” Serpico.” Is art is imitating life, or is life is imitating art, or both.
Police “lingo” also reinforces the perception. Police are called: “officers,” “sergeants,” “corporals,” “lieutenants,” “captains,” and “commanders.”
Finally, many police departments use surplus military weapons, gear, and vehicles.
International Perception of British and European Police
Here are some international perceptions and stereotypes of British police.
- British constables arrive in a “friendly” small white and yellow car with the words “Police” in blue and a single blue light on top.
- They wear white shirts with a badge, and earth-tone trousers.
- Although uniformed officers may have a Billy club, no other weapons are visible.
- They have regular civilian style haircuts.
- When they arrive at the scene, they typically inquire: “Gentlemen, what seems to be the problem?”
These perceptions are partially consistent with my personal experience. Decades ago, I lived in Britain for two years. I quickly noticed a difference between how the British and American police acted and how they were viewed by the public. In general, the British constables were more friendly, helpful, and respectful. Even as American missionaries from an unpopular “weird cult,” we were never hassled or mistreated by the police, even when getting our frequent speeding tickets.
An international reporter observed: “Images of U.S. police shoving peaceful protesters have made an impression on people around the world. That’s a huge cultural difference between British and American police. But it really boils down to having a philosophy that says the most important thing is not to enforce the law at all times. The most important thing is to keep the peace and minimize the amount of harm and injury to anybody in our society.”
The British police use less militaristic “lingo,” like “constable” and “inspector.”
European police are considered to be professionals. They train for 3-4 years, just like teachers and nurses.
For example, in England, a person can become a constable after passing an exam on policing, and then serving an apprenticeship for 3 years. Or, a person can graduate with a 3-year university degree in policing, followed by a one-year apprenticeship.
Much of the police training in Europe focuses on: “The Police Role in Society,” “The Rule of Law,” “Constitutional Law and Democracy,” “The Criminal Justice System,” “Professional Conduct,” and “Ethics.”
Television and movies reflect the perceptions and stereotype of British police. These include: “Midsomer Murders,” “Broadchurch,” “Shetland,” and “Amish McBeth.”
Most British police are unarmed. When they need a gun, they get permission from their supervisor, and check one out from the weapon’s locker.
“Midsomer Murders” is my wife’s favorite show. It involves a junior inspector and a senior chief inspector solving murder mysteries in small English villages. This popular series is in its 22nd season.
I personally have a hard time watching. When two unarmed homicide investigators interview, track down, and arrest dangerous murderers, I freak out. Those detectives would not survive around American criminals.
In Britain, the public culture is one of respect for and cooperation with the police. Disobeying or assaulting a police officer is a huge legal and cultural “No, No!”
Police as the Guardians of Democracy
Stephen R. Covey, author of the mega-best seller, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” wrote a seminal book: “The Nobility of Policing: Guardians of Democracy.”
He observed: “In Plato’s vision of a perfect society — in a republic that honors the core of democracy — the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.”
The police should be recognized and trained as the guardians of democracy. Guardian mindset proponents believe that officers can be trained to be tactically safe without approaching every citizen as a potential enemy combatant.
Covey concluded: “The nobility of policing demands the noblest of character.”
Police as the Defenders of the Constitution
All government officials take the same basic oath, to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The military and CIA are our primary protectors against “foreign enemies.”
However, federal, state and local law enforcement agents, sheriffs, and police are our protectors against “domestic enemies” of the Constitution. They need to be recognized and trained that their primary duty is to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law.
Salt Lake County Scenario
In August 2020, local media reported on a large group of “family-friendly” marchers and dancers who paraded through the streets of the city in Cottonwoods Heights, in Salt Lake County. They were protesting police brutality.
They paraded through several similar cities in Salt Lake County with no problems. They were exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, and the police temporarily blocked off traffic as the protestors marched on.
According to the media, instead of protecting the marchers’ constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, the local police in one city decided it was more important to strictly enforce traffic infractions and disturbing the peace laws.
The police ordered the large crowd out of the public street and onto the sidewalk. They tried to comply, but the group was too large, and they spilled back onto the road.
Police started shoving the protesters and turned the peaceful protest into a melee. The protesters were gassed, beaten, and arrested.
Based on initial media reports, instead of acting like warriors, the officers could have acted like guardians of democracy and defenders of the constitution, their primary role. Sometimes, the constitution is inconvenient. Sometimes, officers must set aside traffic infractions and make a reasonable accommodation for people to lawfully excise their constitutional rights. After all, the police have taken an oath to protect and defend the constitution, not the vehicle code.
While defending the constitution, the police are also the protectors of our fundamental rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
“What makes policing such a noble calling?” According to FranklinCovey materials on the “Noble Truth” and “Critical Responsibilities” of police.
- To preserve freedom and uphold democracy
- To uphold the law
- To ensure justice
- To protect life
- To keep the peace
We, as a society, should consider on replacing the police warrior-military mindset with one of “Guardians of Democracy,” “Defenders of the Constitution,” and “Protectors of our Most Fundamental Rights.”
To accomplish this goal, we should consider:
- More extensive police training in: “The Police Role in Society,” “The Rule of Law,” “Constitutional Law and Democracy,” “The Criminal Justice System,” “Professional Conduct,” and “Ethics.”
- Less militaristic uniforms
- Less intimidating threatening muscle cars
- Less use of military language
- Help officers not view every person as a potential enemy
- In order to be trusted and respected, the police must be respectful and trustworthy
Changing the paradigm will be a major task, but it will be worth it.
(“The Nobility of Policing: Guardians of Democracy,” Stephen R. Covey and Michael Nila (2008); “Socrates: The First Criminal Justice Educator,” Criminal Justice Review, (1980); “What the World Could Teach America About Policing,” Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic, June 10, 2020. http://www.theatlantic.com; “Law Enforcement’s Warrior Problem,” Harvard Law Review, April 2015, http://www.harvardlawreview.org; “Police Academy,” “Blue Wall of Silence,” Wikipedia; “Some U.S. Police Train for Just a Few Weeks,” June 13, 2020, http://www.wbtv.com; “The Warrior Cop Is a Toxic Mentality, and a Lucrative Industry,” June 2020, http://www.thetrace.org; “Poisoning Our Police: The Militarization Mindset,” June 2020, http://www.pogo.org; “The Twisted Psychology of Militarized Police Uniforms,” http://www.fastcompany.com; “The Navy Seal vs. the Cop: Comparing the Mindset,” http://www.sofrep.com; “Police Mentality and Behavior,” http://www.jstor.org; “Us Versus Them in Policing: The Warrior Cop,” May 2019, http://www.inpublicsafety.com; “Should cops move from the warrior mindset,” Police One, http://www.policeone.com; “From Warriors to Guardians,” National Institute of Justice, Rahf and Rice, April 2015, http://www.ncjrs.gov; “Warriors vs. Guardians,” Val Van Brocklin, May 7, 2019, http://www.policeone; What are the differences between British and US police tactics,” The Week, June 8, 2020, http://www.theweek.co.uk; “How US Police Tactics Differ from Europe,” Miriam Berger and Rick Noack, The Independent, June 8, 2020, http://www.theindependent.co.uk; “Cottonwood Heights Violent Clash with Police,” Jennifer Miller & Alex Vejar, Salt Lake Tribune, August 2-3, 2020; “Officials Defend Response,” Annie Knox, Deseret News, Aug 3, 2020))
One thought on “Police Reform (9/10): Rethink the Warrior-Military Mindset”
The Long Beach Police have their own training academy. In training recruits, they have a Marine boot camp environment. They duplicate group formations, facing maneuvers, shouting cadence during marching and running, etc. The Tact (tactical) Officers mimic Marine Corps Drill Instructors, and wear the same campaign-style hats—but black in color.
I have always wondered if all of it fosters a ‘robocop’ disposition in the academy graduates.