Guardian, Warrior or Problem Solver, Policing in 21st Century America

Are you are a guardian or a warrior? The question appears to be a litmus test for law enforcement worthiness or professional masculinity. The debate over guardianship is a false political debate meant to strip the police of societal value or pit them against their community. Warrior vs. guardianship is an argument that diminishes the complexity of policing and the importance the police have as an institution in a democratic society.

We view guardians as protectors. A guardian’s goal is to gain compliance through cooperation. Guardians seek interpersonal interactions rather than using force. However, spontaneous violence requires immediate intervention. Many of the issues the police must resolve are violent, controversial, or politically contentious. The opinion of the community is often split 50/50. Even when there is great agreement on a divisive issue, the police must be the reasonable and constitutionally sound voice, ready to stand against popular thought.  

I have a reprint of the Normal Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, displayed in my office. The painting depicts four U.S. Marshalls escorting a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, to her first day of an integrated school. The painting reminds me the police (I) may have to make unpopular decisions because it’s morally right and constitutionally correct. Why did U.S. Marshall Charles Burks have to travel from Indiana to New Orleans to escort Ruby to school? The local police, the Guardians, were guarding the racist’s status quo. That was the popular thought.

Warrior is a military term that means to impose societal order through violence when necessary. Some departments and officers present as though they are warriors. I had an officer (not Santa Cruz) tell me, “When people come into my town, I want them to fear the police. If the community fears the police, there will be less crime,” he reasoned.

Too often, some police departments try to increase their perceived value by presenting as Special Forces like SEAL Team 6. Their sole purpose for existence is to keep the wolves from the front door of an ignorant and unsuspecting community of sheep. Therefore, they must be ready for war. The ability to war with our communities through the military might is why many community members want to de-militarize the police. Our own words convict us. Citizens do not want a civilian police force capable of going to war with the community.

The police should be viewed as problem solvers. Problem solvers use a wide variety of tools, tactics, and resources to improve community safety. Some problems are immediate and tactical, and others are long-term and strategic. Problem solvers understand their power is limited and must align with the community’s understanding and expectations. We serve our neighbors.

The problem solver understands true power comes through persuasion, collaboration, and broad community support. They recognize the use of force is rare and only when necessary. Let’s be clear, and sometimes force is needed. The problem solver’s thought is not, can I use force, but do I have to use force – there is no other option. Problem-solving is a philosophy worthy of possessing armaments to solve tactical problems, because they would not suppress dissent.    

Solving the debate over how we view the police may take time. The police must change the culture and training that currently exists, dispensing with the ethos, you may be killed at every turn, to studying the data to accurately understand the risk. The community should do their part by recognizing and honoring our officers as invaluable assets, who, when adequately resourced, are capable of solving problems peacefully. Problems the public cannot or will not try to resolve.

We expect our police officers to solve problems of horrific violence rapidly. We want our officers to stop incidents of mass violence, such as the VTA mass shooting recently in San Jose. So far, in 2021, there have been more than 300 mass shootings. We need the police to intervene quickly. We must equip them with tools, such as heavy armor and chemical agents, to prevent their death, and the death of suspects. The police have demonstrated they are willing to take reasonable risks. We can help minimize their risk by providing them the right equipment. They have the right and reasonable expectation they will go home at the end of the shift.

By seeing the police and their mission through a different prism, we can improve the culture of policing and honor the challenging job we ask them to perform. 

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