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Warrior or guardian? How police training fails us

Author Seth Stoughton argues that the guardian, not the warrior, offers the appropriate metaphor for modern officers.

Police officers throwing canisters
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Minneapolis police officers throwing canisters to break up protesters on May 27.
I’ve been so sad ever since George Floyd’s killing by police. So sad, so enraging. I keep wondering how it could have been different. For years, my son has been teaching me about police brutality against black Americans from his vantage point as a resident and business person in Brooklyn. 

And all the others. Philando Castile, a Minnesota black man who simply reached for his wallet when a traffic cop asked him for his driver’s license. Verdict in that case: not guilty. 

And Justine Damond, who called to report the possible assault of a woman in her alley: killed by the Minneapolis policy officer who responded to her call. 

Rethinking training

I’ve been listening to and reading about inquiries into and critiques of contemporary police training. A good example is the 2016 MinnPost commentary by James Densley, professor of law enforcement and criminal justice at Metropolitan State University, entitled “It’s time to rethink Minnesota’s system of police education and training.”

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Remarkably, Densley wrote, Minnesota is the only state in the nation that requires aspiring police candidates to earn a two-year degree from a regionally accredited college or university. Yet most high-school career fairs and police recruitment videos “show the ‘sexy’ side of the law enforcement — officers dressed in hard body armor crashing through doors at dawn, fast-roping from helicopters, taming riots, and shooting their way out of trouble.” This is especially curious, Densely notes, because most officers complete their entire careers without firing their weapons.

photo of article author
Ann Markusen
In addition to their college degrees, many police recruits have gone to “warrior camp,” an exercise scrutinized in a July 11, 2018, Star Tribune article by David Chanen following public concern over the deaths of Castile, Damond, and Thurmond Blevins, an African-American running from police in north Minneapolis in June of 2018. Warrior training is the invention of retired Lt. Col. David Grossman, whose courses and book, “On Killing,” teaches that cops should be taught to kill with less hesitation. As writer Cinnamon Janzer describes in an April, 2019, issue of Next City, “Warrior training prioritizes officer safety over community safety by conditioning trainees to view all encounters as inherently dangerous.” 

A ban, and police defiance

Both Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arrandondo have spoken out against such training, banning it for their officers, though it is hard to prevent them from privately taking the course. Janzer quotes Mayor Frey:

Fear-based, warrior-style trainings like ‘killology’ are in direct conflict with everything that our chief and I stand for in our police department. … Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing. When you’re conditioned to believe that every person encountered poses a threat to your existence, you simply cannot be expected to build meaningful relationships with those same people.

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, a non-AFL-CIO affiliated union, represents the city and park police officers. They are part of the problem, enthusiastically endorsing and financing warrior training for their members. In May of 2019, following Frey’s ban, the union offered free “warrior training” in defiance of the ban. 

A better metaphor: guardian

It’s not just Minnesota, either. It’s national. In the April 10, 2015, Harvard Law Review, author Seth Stoughton reviewed the recent record in an eye-opening article entitled “Law Enforcement’s ‘Warrior’ Problem.”

“Officers are trained to cultivate a ‘warrior mindset,’” he wrote, citing a long list of articles and videos you can find online. For instance, the 2015 International Law Enforcement Educator and Trainers Association Conference featured two sessions each on “Becoming Knights – Teaching Warrior Mindset to the Non-Warrior” and “Building Warrior Women Trainers.” 

Stoughton argues that the guardian, not the warrior, offers the appropriate metaphor for modern officers. He offers two practical changes to police training that could advance the ultimate police mission — promoting public security — in a way that fosters, rather than thwarts, public trust: requiring non-enforcement contacts with members of the community and emphasizing tactical restraint. 

Ann Markusen is a professor emerita, University of Minnesota; principal of Markusen Economic Research; and a resident of Red Clover Township.

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