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