How ‘Warrior Policing’ Undermines U.S. Law Enforcement

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Photo by Yannick Gringras via Flickr

As law enforcement veterans, we found the footage of the Jacob Blake shooting—yet another unarmed Black man gunned down by the police—distressing beyond words.

The profession of policing was never supposed to be this way.

If we do not fix it, even the good cops out there will be mutated by a system looking to protect its own more than communities and vulnerable citizens.

There are, of course, more good cops than bad ones on the streets today. We should know. One of us has spent his career working with law enforcement of all stripes. The other has been a former police officer as well as a prosecutor.

Arthur Rizer

Arthur Rizer

Our experience tells us that there are fundamental issues with law enforcement training that contribute overwhelmingly to the violent encounters we continue to witness.

These encounters are examples of a misguided approach to training that deliberately pits cops against the public. Young officers today leave the academy with a sense of fear and mistrust that can lead directly to encounters that escalate into violence and tragedy.

What would policing look like with the proper training?

Research and real-life experiences with properly trained law enforcement officers make clear how different the Jacob Blake scenario could have been.

 When the officers arrived on scene, the situation was already highly charged. Reports indicate that Jacob Blake intervened to stop a fight. As every officer is aware, this was a potentially explosive situation playing out in the midst of national upheaval over policing in communities of color.

The officers had two choices. They could immediately try to take command of the situation through aggressive tone, body posture and weapons displays. Or they could try to defuse the situation and lower the emotional temperature by allowing angry or scared individuals to calm down.

Wise cops know how to defuse a situation like this. But for most, it is a learned response—not something that comes naturally, especially under immense pressure.

In general, American police are trained only to take command of a situation through force, starting with commands barked loudly and aggressively. At the same time, they are trained to be vigilant for anything that could expose them, or those around them, to harm.

Indeed, they are taught that American streets are a battleground. This mindset emphasizes “warrior” policing, aggressive tactics and the hair-trigger willingness to use lethal force.

In fact, for decades, a whole grifting industry of ex-cop consultants has made millions showing trainees horrifying videos where officers have been shot during what seemed like garden-variety stops.

The goal (besides fattening consultants’ wallets) is to put trainees on notice: you can die at any moment. Your primary job is to make it out of every shift alive. Every person you encounter could be the person who has a plan to kill you. You need to have a plan to kill them first.

(Think I’m exaggerating? Read Seth Stoughton’s brilliant commentary on “warrior police” training in the Harvard Law Review Forum. The apocalyptic tone of many of these training sessions is truly unhinged.)

Yes, bad things can happen on a shift, and vigilance can be lifesaving. But police training currently goes beyond emphasizing caution and situational awareness.

It deliberately seeks to amp trainees up, to turn them into warriors ready to establish dominance over every person and every encounter, with force deployed at the first chink in the armor of control.

The problem with this approach is that it gives officers nowhere to go besides force when there is noncompliance.

David Franco

David Franco

In Jacob Blake’s case, it appears that officers almost immediately attempted to physically subdue him. When they couldn’t, they escalated the situation and shot him eight times in the back as he leaned into his vehicle. It appears to have been a fear-based decision and a lack of de-escalation tactics on the part of the officer.

When you add deadly weapons to the mix, the result is almost unsurprising.

Consider the cases of Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth Texas and Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Two fearful and agitated officers ended up killing these individuals. Instead of responding intelligently to emotional situations and trying to defuse them peacefully, it appears that the accused officers missed multiple opportunities to defuse the situations.

Whether or not they were justified in a narrow legal sense, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, and now Jacob Blake’s shootings may have been avoided with proper training.

Some police advocates will argue that you can’t focus solely on the grisly moment of a shooting; you need to understand the fluid, charged situation that led to it. That’s true.

But to give you the full picture of a police encounter, it’s also appropriate to ask whether the officer accurately gauged the emotional tenor of an encounter and used the best tools to resolve it.

Often, the best approach is to let anger spend itself, to listen politely and respond with empathy. We do police a disservice when we train them to believe that every encounter is likely to become a battle unless the hammer is dropped.

The power to employ lethal force should be balanced by a sustained commitment to de-escalate the situation first and should be backed by regular training and consistent messaging that force should be a last resort .

This is by no means an easy skill to learn. It requires real emotional intelligence, backed by diligent training (especially scenario-based training) and mentorship of recruits and young officers.

It’s also much more expensive than showing trainees grisly videos and telling them to respond accordingly.

But it is better than the terrible damage that warrior policing has caused. And it is a return to what policing should be: a profession comprised of civil servants whose mission is to protect and serve communities and vulnerable individuals.

At the end of this terrible summer for America and its police, there are no easy answers.

There’s only a clear-eyed recognition that the current system isn’t working.

It’s time to give police more and better tools.

Additional reading: A Simple Step to Change Police Culture: Disarm

Arthur Rizer, a former military and civilian police officer and federal prosecutor, is the director of criminal justice and civil liberties policy at the R Street Institute. Officer David Franco (Ret.) spent 21 years with the Chicago Police Department and now speaks on behalf of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges and others in criminal justice who support evidence-based public safety policies.

3 thoughts on “How ‘Warrior Policing’ Undermines U.S. Law Enforcement

  1. With all due respect to the authors, I think this is the most wrongheaded article ever.

    One needs only to look at the numbers, more cops have been shot and/or killed than in previous years. The tenor and tone of this article suggests that it’s their fault.

    It’s not.

    What so many seem to forget is that policing is a reactive profession mostly. In the Blake case, regardless of the initial posture of the cops, does anyone really believe that Blake would have adhered to the reasonable and lawful commands of the cops? It is unlikely that he would have.

    After notifying the cop(s) he had a gun, Castille was asked repeatedly not to move. He continued to move despite, again, the reasonable and lawful commands of the cop. He brought on his own death. Had he complied, guess what, he’d be alive today.

    And how do we know the cops mentioned here were unusually fearful, i.e., any more than usual under these trying conditions?

    Lastly, and these authors should know this, the reality of policing, certainly in larger jurisdictions, is that in fact, any call could be the officer’s last call. There are people out there who seek to hurt and ultimately kill cops.

    They know who they are. We do not. And that must be factored in by every cop everywhere.

  2. The author asserts Blake was not armed when he was, AND that he was there to break up a disturbance, HE WAS THE DISTURBANCE! He was there harassing his victim of a past sexual assault.
    The officers knew he had a felony warrant for the past sexual assault and were trying to arrest him.
    What would you want the cops to do, let a person that is armed with a knife go mobile with potential hostages in the vehicle? How is that going to make things better for anyone. Jacob Blake made multiple bad choices. His choices caused the result.
    Don’t get me wrong there is a case to be made for de-escalation. It should be tried. But the author of the article bases his argument for de escalation on unfactual information.

  3. I would like to see an article by a police officer admit to the deal with the conjoined issues of “pumping a suspect” & the ability to create overtime for ones self. An enforcer, in Seattle I think, earned in excess of $400,000 in one year. He didn’t do that without creating the opportunities himself. This is not something unique to one department or office, if not to that extent.

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