Policing moves in cycles. Since 9/11 the cycle has shifted away from community engagement to securing our communities against terrorism, and controlling crime through aggressive intervention.
In the midst of these changes, the self-constructed role of police officers as warriors has not only persisted, but become dominant. We prefer to think of ourselves as “crime fighters” whose sole mission is to protect our communities from the evils of the world by locking up the bad guys.
This romanticized perception of warrior policing can be self-satisfying. After all, the image of the warrior pervades our culture. However, as professionals we are not in the business of perpetuating popular fantasies. Our duty is to serve and protect. We are guardians.
What is warrior policing? Warrior policing narrowly focuses on controlling crime via power and authority. It perpetuates the cultural view that excludes “outsiders” from police work; people not privy to the responsibilities and complexities of the job. Such a simplistic dichotomy is attractive because it creates clear lines of social engagement. Unfortunately it also perpetuates stereotypes while bolstering serious resistance to change.
Warrior policing considers power and authority as rights exclusively reserved for police officers.
The “warrior mindset” preached by many in American law enforcement ignores the role warriors actually played in Native American tradition. Warriors served as community caretakers, caring for widows, orphans and the elderly. They saw that food was distributed fairly, that shelter was available for every member of the tribe. When the community was threatened from outside, they went to war. Their role as “fighters” was important but not primary.
What is guardianship policing? Guardians consider themselves legally and morally responsible for peacekeeping and peacemaking within the community. They serve as the stewards of community life and health, deriving their power and authority from the community they serve.
When circumstances dictate they act as warriors, defending the community from attack.
The Navajo Peacekeeper Project is great example of how police officers can move beyond enforcement to guardianship. Building on traditional values that emphasized maintaining and restoring harmony (hozho), officers were schooled to identify the root causes of disputes. Intervention focused on conflict resolution.
By engaging in peacemaking efforts, repeat calls were reduced and harmony restored, making the community safer for both officers and citizens. Sounds like community policing?
Guardianship is a philosophy of policing, not a program. American law enforcement has often succumbed to “flavor-of-the month” thinking when it comes to how we police our communities. This ebb and flow results in disjointed efforts and fragmented perceptions of what role officers are to play. Riding to the rescue comes the satisfying vision of the police officer as warrior, the one constant amidst professional chaos.
Law enforcement has become the primary tool to address a wide array of social problems. For example, citizens suffering from mental illness have been released into communities because treatment is no longer available.
When these unfortunate souls cause problems in the community, police officers are called to the deal with them. Local law enforcement officers confront the results of transnational crime every day in the form of drug and human trafficking, representing a plague on community life and health. Natural and man-made disasters threaten communities in the form of weather events, wildfires, transportation accidents and chemical spills.
Who are the first responders? Police officers and their peers in public safety. In today’s world we are called on to fill many roles.
In order to survive as a profession we should embrace a new philosophy of policing. Guardianship is a philosophy with an expansive view of our place in society which places police officers squarely within community life. It moves far beyond the narrow perception that police control events by applying power to the problem. It acknowledges that our authority is limited to what is granted by our citizens rather than what we choose to acquire for ourselves.
How do we adopt guardianship policing? We should develop new templates for recruiting and search for people with the capacity for critical thinking. We need to understand the cultural influences that shape officers’ attitudes over the course of years. We should confront the barriers to change erected by police culture and set them aside. We must partner with community activists and organizations as well as academia to develop a broader perspective of community needs.
Instead of resisting increased accountability we should embrace it. We should emphasize the value of communication skills and stop equating de-escalation techniques with threats to officer safety; no such relationship exists.
At the same time we must not discard policing practices because they may be unpopular. The warrior role will always have its place in police work. There will always be situations requiring officers to use force as the last resort to protect lives including their own. However we must recognize that this is not the only role police officers play, nor is it the most important.
We live in times of enormous social transformation. Like it or not, the cycle of social transformation moves forward and law enforcement is caught in the flow of events. We can jump into the water and swim against the tide. Or we can build a better boat that allows us to ride the current to new places.
It’s time to transition to a better style of policing: guardianship.
Doug Parker served over 36 years with three Colorado police agencies: University of Colorado-Denver campus police; Littleton Police Department; and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office. He served as a street supervisor, administrative lieutenant, SWAT team leader, Watch Commander and Division Commander. A summa cum laude graduate of Regis University (Denver), he received an MS in Criminology this past April. He welcomes comments from readers.