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I ran across a meaningful phrase recently. Police officers in many police departments operate from a war mentality as opposed to a guardian mentality. When we call 911, we expect expert guardians to arrive, officers trained to help us with a situation we cannot handle on our own. Instead, warriors arrive, trained to shoot people who may have a gun, and who therefore may be a threat to anyone, including the officers. That explains the practice of shoot first and shoot to kill, for that is how you act when you think kill or be killed governs your day-to-day work.

I am a writer. Suppose every hundredth time I hit some unknown key on my keyboard, my computer explodes like a hand grenade, with enough force to kill me or maim me. Also like a hand grenade, I have ten seconds or less to destroy the machine if I perceive the computer’s pin may be pulled. I can destroy the computer with a simple sequence of lethal actions to prevent the machine from destroying me.

That is how police officers behave. They believe the people they deal with have the capacity to kill them with ten seconds notice or less. Ten seconds does not give you a lot of time to react. It does not allow time to gather information, to determine if the pin is actually out. If you think the subject may have a gun, and may intend to use it, that is all you need to draw your weapon and shoot – to kill. If the object in front of you poses a threat that serious, would you pause before you react?

That is what war mentality means. No one criticizes a soldier who acts decisively to save himself and his mates.

That is what war mentality means. No one criticizes a soldier who acts decisively to save himself and his mates. No one suggests he should have gathered additional information before he unleashes his weapon in self defense. To the contrary, his mates trust him for his willingness to kill before someone can kill him or anyone else in the company.

The obvious failure in this analogy is that police officers are not at war. Citizens they protect are not enemies. Criminals petty and otherwise who want to escape arrest are not an organized fighting force. Occasionally someone shoots – or tries to shoot – a policeman, intentionally. A situation where someone tries to shoot a policeman almost never occurs without warning. That is, a properly prepared police officer can accurately assess the level of danger in an environment.

The exaggerated, grievously mistaken threat estimates that justify one use of lethal force after another result from poorly prepared police officers who treat too many situations like battlefield survival decisions. A gross mismatch exists between their mental state – developed through training, cues from their peers, and organizational culture – and their actual environment out in neighborhoods. When they act as if they are at war, all families can do is clean up the blood afterwards. You cannot hand the sponge to a hyper-protective, fearful officer who shoots your husband, brother, or son.


Here are five cases of neighborhood policing gone wrong because hair-trigger warriors appeared on the scene:

  • In Wichita, Kansas, police kill a man on his front porch because someone swatted his house. They shot him less than ten seconds after he emerged from his front door.
  • Police shot Stephon Clark twenty times as he stood in his back yard. Afterwards, they claimed his cell phone looked like a gun.
  • A policeman shoots and kills a twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland, one and a half seconds after he steps out of his squad car, because he thinks the boy’s toy gun is real.
  • A mother calls police to help bring her schizophrenic son in from the cold. They kill him shortly after they arrive, for the usual reasons.
  • A woman reports a possible sexual assault in St. Paul. When police arrive, she approaches the driver’s side of the car, taps on the window to let the driver know she’s there. Officer on the passenger side reaches across the driver and shoots her through the window.

Read the related article in VoxPolice officers explain how they’re encouraged to act in racist ways. A key part of the story is metrics, the dread word we hear from business managers everywhere. You have to use metrics to make sure your employees do their jobs. For police officers, you count the number of tickets and arrests, per police officer, per month. If you do not make enough arrests, or write enough tickets, you have to shape up and get with the program.

Police officers detail how these incentives make them go after those who are most vulnerable. More than that, the incentives and metrics need to be reversed. Leaders will tell you, administration of punishment signals discipline has failed. They know that a well functioning unit, whether a division on a ship or a neighborhood in a community, organizes itself to run well when it has leaders it respects. Police officers, in a community-based model of law enforcement, are among a neighborhood’s leaders.

That means that the fewer arrests, and the fewer tickets, the better police officers are doing their jobs. If chiefs and sergeants want to count things, they should reward the officers who issue the fewest citations, and who make the fewest arrests. That’s how you know their neighborhoods function well. That’s how you know law enforcement has done its job: when neighborhoods are peaceful and secure, when the pipeline that takes people from the community to the criminal justice system is virtually empty.

As the Vox article concludes, community policing is something you do with a community, not to it.

Related articles

Understanding Police Culture

Police officers explain how they’re encouraged to act in racist ways

Law Enforcement’s “Warrior” Problem