Wise Words from an Ex-Cop: The Police Guardian v. The Police Warrior

Wise Words from an Ex-Cop: The Police Guardian v. The Police Warrior June 9, 2015


“Officers… must realize that the public—even a group of non-compliant teenagers—are not an enemy to be vanquished, but civilians to be protected.”

– Seth Stoughton


I just read a phenomenal article from TPM & Seth Stoughton, a former cop who now teaches at the University of South Carolina Law School, commenting on the latest video evidence of police brutality, this from McKinney, TX. I first saw this video Sunday evening as it was blowing up on Twitter. I had to hide in my closet from my kids… brutality from another officer of the law, Corporal Eric Casebolt, directed toward teenagers who are clearly attempting to show respect while voicing concerns. Here’s the video:

Stoughton seems to be putting his finger on one of the issues beneath the issue. He says that the path to brutality is more complex than racism, or classism, or a general lack of compassion. The problem is the officers’ fundament mindset about what it means to be a cop. Stoughton believes there is a right mindset and a wrong one:

“The right mindset can de-escalate tense situations, induce compliance, and increase community trust over the long-term… the wrong mindset, on the other hand, can exacerbate a tense encounter, produce resistance, and lead to entirely avoidable violence. It can, and has, caused longterm damage to police/community relations.”

In an article he wrote for the Harvard Law Review, Stoughton describes these two very different approaches to law enforcement: The Police Guardian and the Police Warrior.

“The guardian mindset prioritizes service over crimefighting, and it values the dynamics of short-term encounters as a way to create long-term relationships. As a result, it instructs officers that their interactions with community members must be more than legally justified, they must also be empowering, fair, respectful, and considerate. One approach, referred to as “Justice Based Policing,” instructs officers to “Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity.” (Sue Rahr et al., The Four Pillars of Justice Based Policing 1, 2011). It explains that officers should: Listen — Allow people to give their side of the story; give them voice, and let them vent. Explain — Explain what you’re doing, what they can do, and what’s going to happen. Equity — Tell them why you are taking action. The reason must be fair and free of bias, and show their input was taken into consideration. Dignity — Act with dignity and leave them with their dignity. The guardian mindset emphasizes communication over commands, cooperation over compliance, and legitimacy over authority. And in the use-of-force context, the Guardian emphasizes patience and restraint over control, stability over action.”

This makes a ton of sense to me. I think that the police guardian mentality even has the ability to subvert the underlying racism or classism or basic lack of compassion that seems to exist in many of the officers guilty of unnecessarily escalating situations to the point of violent conflict. Even for an officer who does have an issue with a racist mindset can be trained as a police guardian, and thereby work in his or her professional capacity in such a way as to protect and serve and help as oppose to exacerbating tensions and creating enemies out of neighbors. Officers who commit acts of police brutality might not be racist at all, but the problem of mindset still leads them to a place where they commit injustices in the name of protecting justice.

As I have been searching for the right words to say about his incredibly frustrating trend, I find Stoughton’s language helpful:

“What should officers do in similar situations? For starters, they must realize that the public—even a group of non-compliant teenagers—are not an enemy to be vanquished, but civilians to be protected, to the extent possible, from indignity and harm. A Guardian mindset encourages officers to be “procedurally just,” to ensure that their encounters with civilians are empowering, fair, respectful and considerate. Research of police and military encounters strongly suggests that officers are most effective at fostering goodwill and reducing antagonism when they approach each encounter with the goal of building civilian trust.”


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