This article was first published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and on the Santa Rosa Police Department Facebook page in 2015.
There has been a great deal of debate across our country lately about whether law enforcement officers should adopt a warrior or guardian mindset. The issue featured prominently in the report by the President’s Commission on 21st Century Policing. One of the first recommendations in that report says that law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy.
The recommendation also states that agencies should adopt procedural justice as a guiding principle for our interactions with the public. The Santa Rosa Police Department recently sent officers to a “train the trainer” course for procedural justice and will be training the whole department in the topic over the coming year. The tenets of procedural justice are nothing new to the Department, but this training will enhance our current practices and performance.
One of the panelists on the President’s Commission described warriors as soldiers whose mission is to conquer, to follow set rules of engagement and obey orders. The same panelist defined guardians as protectors who must make independent decisions and operate with evolving rules of engagement. I understand the points this person is making, and also disagree with some of the characterizations she uses to distinguish warriors and guardians.
Law enforcement is a complex profession that requires a difficult balance between caution and openness. Officers must treat people with respect and dignity, and avoid acting so we are seen as an outside, occupying force. We need to be a part of our communities. At the same time, peace officers must always be prepared to use force when necessary. In the decade between 2004-2013, American law enforcement officers were assaulted an average of approximately 59,000 times each year. These statistics show one major difference between law enforcement and most other professions. Many jobs are dangerous, but few come with the expectation that people will intentionally try to hurt you.
As a young officer, I was always taught that a good cop should maintain a warrior mindset. Being thought of as a warrior was an honor, and I never distinguished between the mindset of a warrior and guardian. Guardianship was just one of the first principles of the warrior mindset. To me a warrior was someone who perseveres in difficult times and stands up for others. A warrior sacrifices his or her time, sweat, and if necessary, blood to do what is right. A warrior, like a guardian, protects others and defends ideals. In our case, those ideals are the Constitution and the laws of our city, state, and nation.
The warrior I see does not seek to fight, neither wishing to hurt others nor suffer injury. When required however, warriors and guardians both will fight to defend themselves, protect others, or uphold the law. I have never considered a warrior to be an oppressor or conqueror who follows orders without independent thought. In fact, I think history shows that our warriors and guardians, whether in the military or law enforcement, are at their best when they have the ability to both follow orders and exercise appropriate discretion and independent decision-making. I believe a guardian and warrior share the same qualities, so the argument about which mindset to adopt in policing is more a question of semantics than substance to me.
Call us warriors or call us guardians. I know that a good peace officer is both, because even guardians will need to be warriors in those times when de-escalation fails and we have to use force. Our task and our pledge is to use that force lawfully, reasonably, and only when necessary.