“If you could change one thing about policing in the United States, what would it be?” That was the question Mark Lacey asked me recently. Mark is the National Editor of the New York Times. He was moderating a discussion about policing and incarceration, and I was a panelist. I paused for a second before answering, “I would end saturation policing strategies.” I have written before about these strategies, which flood neighborhoods with police officers who engage in a deliberately over-broad campaign to stop people who seem, at least to the officers, suspicious or disorderly. New York’s infamous stop-and-frisk program is a classic example of a saturation strategy. In the course of the program, NYPD made over 5 million stops, and according to the police department, used force in one of every five. That’s a million times. In 2011, the peak year of the program, NYPD made 635,000 stops, or more than 1,700 stops a day. Most of the people who were stopped had no prior involvement in the criminal justice system, and the overwhelming majority were people of color.
But of course, no one should want to change just one thing about policing. More importantly, no one should believe that any single change, especially at the policy level, will really make that much difference. Like any complex system, policing has a way of resisting change. The same is true of any human-based process that has developed a distinctive culture defined by a set of broadly shared norms. So long as the culture and norms remain undisturbed, forcing participants to end one practice will only lead them to develop a workaround that accomplishes the same thing while preserving the culture and its norms. After the murder of George Floyd, for instance, many police departments banned the use of neck restraints. But a neck restraint is simply one of many incapacitation techniques, and if police cannot use that one, they’ll find another that might be equally dangerous. Policy matters, but if you want to fix policing, you have to change the culture and norms.
How do we do that? Here’s a place to start: End the warrior model of policing. Not too long ago, I was speaking with Dean Isabella. At the time, Dean was a captain in the Providence, Rhode Island, Police Department. We were sitting in his small, square corner office on the ground floor of the Providence Public Safety building, talking about changes since he joined the force. “When I started in 1987,” he said, “we were a traditional force—.” “What do you mean by that, traditional?” I interrupted. “Quasi-military,” he answered. At the most innocuous level, to describe a police department as quasi-military, or more commonly paramilitary, is simply a comment on its organizational structure. A paramilitary organization has a rigid, top-down command style that employs a centralized decision-making process and grants relatively little discretion to officers in the field. Used this way, the term is not limited to policing. I have met with prison officials, for example, who have described their organizations as paramilitary.
Still, in my experience, few officers use the term simply to describe their department’s organizational style. A police department that adopts a military-style command structure generally also embraces a military mindset, which shapes its orientation to the outside world. Like most cops, Isabella meant “quasi-military” in this broader sense. He told me that when he started in the Providence Police Department, there was “a militaristic attitude reflected in everything you did.” This attitude comes naturally to many police officers, likely because roughly one in five cops, like Isabella, previously served in the military.
This is where things can go awry. Being a soldier, like being a police officer, can undoubtedly be an honorable profession. There is, or can be, great virtue in the selflessness and commitment to public service at the heart of both military service and law enforcement. Yet obedience to all lawful commands is an essential aspect of military discipline. Soldiers do not expect to have their orders questioned, and generally do not pause to explain or justify those orders to the soldiers and civilians under their command. But whatever wisdom there is in demanding unquestioned obedience in the military, it takes no particular imagination to see the effect this mindset can produce in a domestic police department.
Many departments actually encourage officers to see themselves this way, and to model their behavior not just on the common soldier but on the soldier who is constantly threatened by enemies. This warrior model of policing originated out of a legitimate concern for officer safety, but that concern soon mutated to dwarf all other considerations, including neighborhood well-being. Under the warrior mindset, officers are conditioned to believe that threats swirl around them unseen—behind them while they wait in line for coffee, in their blind spot as they hand a citation to a pedestrian, or in the seemingly innocuous encounter with a resident complaining about garbage in the street. In the words of one commentator, the warrior cop must view every civilian interaction “as a potential deadly-force encounter.” Some veteran police trainers are perfectly explicit on this score. “Develop that warrior mindset that allows you to become the predator and not the prey,” one senior trainer advises. “Remain humble and compassionate; be professional and courteous—and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” That, Isabella told me, is how Providence trained its officers to see the world.
At the risk of stating the obvious, an officer who demands unquestioned submission, who views every encounter as potentially life-threatening, and who has a plan to kill everyone he meets may not respond well to disobedience. A two-year study of police brutality in New York City identified a single “iron and inflexible rule”: to defy the police is to risk retaliation, “commencing with a summons, on up to the use of firearms.” Inevitably, this will sometimes lead to tragedy. In July 2016, a Minnesota police officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. It turned out the officer had undergone a popular training program put on by Calibre Press, a publisher of police-related books and videos, entitled “The Bulletproof Warrior.” The course included videos of officers being shot, and booklets recommending that police use more force than necessary, even preemptively. One booklet read, “Myth: The officer must use the minimal amount of force necessary to affect their lawful law enforcement objectives.” Former West Point Professor Dave Grossman, who has taught the course to thousands of officers, emphasizes to attendees that their job is to fight violence with greater violence; once an officer is properly prepared, “killing is just not that big a deal.” (The officer who shot and killed Castile was acquitted at trial.)
The Calibre Press course is not an aberration. In 2015, the Police Executive Research Forum found that police departments spend an average of eight hours training officers in conflict de-escalation and 129 hours training them on weapons and fighting. With training so disproportionately focused on the use of force, it is easy to imagine how routine police encounters could escalate into brutality. In July 2015, a Texas State Trooper named Brian Encinia stopped 28 year-old Sandra Bland for failing to use her turn signal. He approached her car on the passenger side and after a brief exchange, ordered her to put out her cigarette. Bland, who certainly had the right to smoke in her own car, refused. Now she had done something far worse than fail to use her turn signal. She had questioned Encinia’s authority, thus committing what police scholars James Fyfe and Jerome Skolnick call “a police cultural crime.”
Encinia ordered Bland out of her car. She refused this order as well. He then returned briefly to his squad car, walked to the driver side of Bland’s car, opened the driver’s door (which Bland had left unlocked), and tried to drag her from her car. When this failed, he pulled out his stun gun and shouted at Bland, “I’m going to light you up!” Bland got out of her car. Encinia restrained her hands behind her back, placed her in the back of his squad car, and took her to jail, where she was unable to post $5,000 bail. Days later, she was found hanging in her jail cell, dead.
In one sense, the death of Sandra Bland is atypical. Police interact with millions of citizens every day, and the overwhelming majority of those encounters do not end in violence or tragedy. Yet in another sense, the interaction between Bland and Encinia is merely one extreme of a typical interaction between a warrior cop and a citizen. Many officers trained as warriors deliberately adopt an attitude that demands obedience. The police call it “command presence.” Officers communicate—through the words they use, the tone they adopt, and their non-verbal cues—that refusal to obey is not an option, and that if a situation escalates to violence, the officer will never be on the receiving end. As one veteran trainer put it, “Command presence communicates to everyone present that you are in charge—not just now, but right the fuck now. Not just sort of in charge, but totally and completely fucking in charge.”
There may be occasions when a command presence safely calms a volatile situation, but when police are trained to view every situation as potentially life-threatening, they become quick to adopt an authoritarian persona. In practice, most people will dutifully obey an armed officer who demands that they act in a certain way, particularly when stories of lethal police violence are so well known. But no one takes well to being ordered around like a circus animal, and while Officer Right-the-Fuck-Now may secure compliance and drive away from a scene convinced he handled it correctly, he leaves behind a slow boil of resentment and barely contained hostility.
In this environment, brutality is inevitable. As Skolnick and Fyfe observed, “the war model of policing encourages police violence.” No less than soldiers, cops at war need an enemy. The enemies they select “are found in inner cities and among our minority populations. There, in a country as foreign to most officers as Vietnam was to GIs, cops have trouble distinguishing the good guys from the bad.” Before long, “everybody becomes suspect in their eyes. The community and the police become alienated and distrustful of each other, and incidents like the [Rodney] King beating occur more frequently than we would like to think” (emphasis in original).
Violence is not the only product of the warrior mindset. Experienced cops will tell you they cannot do their jobs without the support of the residents where they patrol, who know far better than the police who is doing what, who makes the neighborhood better, and who makes it worse. But what neighborhood will support a force that views its members not as partners but as threats? The warrior model of policing pounds a sharp wedge between the police and the people they serve, driving them farther apart with each belligerent glance and resentful sneer, and destroying the trust on which relationships are built. This is certainly what happened in Providence, where the department grew estranged from the very community it was trying to serve. Looking back, none of the animosity or estrangement comes as a surprise to Dean Isabella. “If you train to become an occupying army,” he said, “guess what you’ll become?”
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If I could take one step to transform the culture of policing, I would end the warrior model. There are alternatives, the most popular being the guardian model, and I hope to discuss them in future essays. For now, it is important to understand all that might flow from this change. If a department no longer expects its officers to be warriors, it will change who it recruits and hires. It will change how it trains, rewards, and promotes its staff. And most importantly, it will change how it views and treats the people it serves. In a word, it will change everything, and that’s what we need.