The needed police reform is a culture shift from conquering to protecting

Photo by Roscoe Myrick | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.”

That was the message from President Donald Trump to the nation’s governors on Monday during a conference call largely filled with him berating them about a weekend of protests and riots that, in his eyes, made our nation look weak.

His solution to the problem, to the centuries of systemic racism upon which this nation was built combined with a pandemic and record unemployment and forced isolation, is toughness. Tracking and arresting and jailing people who have been pushed to the edge. Tear gassing peaceful protesters for a photo op. 

Some have called his comments unhinged. But others see it as a sign of strength.

The differing perceptions highlight a divide in America. Does strength come from a show of force, from “dominating” with might? Or is it better displayed during times like this by reaching out to those who are hurting and offering empathy?

Police departments are grappling with this issue as well. For decades, many have focused on physical force and apparatus and training methods that instilled a warrior’s mindset.  

Militarizing the police sets up protesters as ‘the enemy,’ increases violence

Warrior officers are hypervigilant. They are trained to recognize that any and every situation has the potential for harm, and they must do whatever they can to minimize the threat to ensure they make it home safely at the end of their shift.  

At first glance, that type of mindset makes sense. We’ve all heard stories about an ordinary traffic stop that turned deadly in a matter of seconds. But is it possible this type of training also produces negative, unintended consequences? 

Police experts say yes. They point to the ever-increasing militarization of local law enforcement and research that indicates warrior-style training increases the likelihood of an officer using excessive force. They’ve called for a pivot to a guardian mindset, one that values working hand-in-hand with the community to reduce crime.

The differences between the styles is about more than attitude. Which approach a department chooses to embrace will also dictate the way it trains its officers.

Warrior-style training is modeled after a military boot camp. Yes sir, no sir. Follow orders. Remain detached. Prepare for combat. 

Guardian-style training emphasizes communication and critical thinking skills. It doesn’t skimp on tactical training, which will always be crucial in law enforcement, but rather focuses on de-escalation techniques. 

Proponents of guardian-style training believe it does more to ensure officer safety than a warrior mindset because it builds trust with the community and helps shed the “us vs. them” mentality

Since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen how the warrior vs. guardian mindset has played out in departments across the nation.

In Camden, New Jersey, a city once known as one of the most dangerous in the country, officers marched alongside protesters and held a BBQ for the community. There were few arrests in the city, which the chief credited to an overhaul of the department and training methods that stress community policing and the sanctity of life. Since that overhaul, violent crime is down, and excessive force complaints have dropped 95%.

Indeed, the images of officers and police chiefs marching with, talking with, and embracing protesters did more to quell discord than the images of officers indiscriminately knocking an elderly man to the ground or shoving a woman into a sidewalk or firing rubber bullets at a photographer.

While a number of Arizona departments have modified police training to encourage more of a guardian mindset, it’s obvious there’s more that needs to be done to make the shift from conquering to protecting.

Officers must buy in to the changes. They need to understand the importance of building trust with the community and how changing policies and techniques help keep them safe, as well. And they need to be held to account when they have the ability but refuse to intervene in an excessive force situation.

It’s also far past time for union leaders to understand the damage they are doing to their own profession when they protect officers from necessary consequences. City councils and/or city managers need to take a harder line during negotiations, refusing to accept agreements that shield officers from discipline or keep the community in the dark by allowing the purging of discipline records.  

Culture change is never easy. But it’s what’s demanded when an officer can use a knee to choke out the life of an unarmed man while three others look on in silence.

Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.