Shifting Gears in Policing

Recently Harvard Law Review published an article by Seth Stoughton entitled “Law Enforcement’s ‘Warrior’ Problem.” It discussed the need for law enforcement to move beyond the idea of being “warriors” and accept the concept of becoming “guardians.” Stoughton wrote that the concept of being warriors started with the best of intentions, but has “created substantial obstacles to improving police/community relations.” Whichever side of the discussion you fall on, warrior or guardian, it is a huge over simplification to think that a single mentality can define the role patrol officers must play each shift to remain safe and protect the community. Law enforcement cannot be one or the other; we must have the ability to fill many different roles dependent upon the circumstances presented by the situation.

As a patrol sergeant with one of the youngest squads in the department, I knew that it would be vital to define the mentality I expected my officers to have while on the road. I could not support a singular mentality whose sole purpose was to either keep them safe or allow them to more easily interact with the public. Through this internal debate, I concluded that one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement is getting away from any concept that takes a “one size fits all” approach. Patrol officers should not be asked or expected to be just warriors or just guardians. They should be expected to be and trained to be warriors, guardians, caretakers, counsellors, educators, enforcers, and community representatives with the ability to shift gears from one role into another seamlessly based upon the circumstances of the call.

Officers must possess the intelligence to quickly assess a situation, decide on the role they must play, and then execute it successfully while continuing to assess their ever changing environment. As law enforcement supervisors, we have to assist our officers in rectifying the conflict between showing compassion, empathy, and understanding while at the same time being ready to maintain control of the situation and possibly use force. Training the ability to show compassion, empathy, and understanding while also maintaining officer safety is the challenge law enforcement faces and the primary reason why a “one size fits all” mentality so easily took hold in the first place. One requires constant thinking, adapting, and assessing; while the other allows for simplicity.

Department training must adapt to this more complicated and effective style of policing. Just as it is critical for officers to have on-going training in firearms, legal updates, emergency driving, and defensive tactics; it is equally as important to find training techniques that emphasize problem-solving, de-escalation, and proper “gear selection” based upon a call’s circumstances. There must be an emphasis on finding solutions to problems and not just being a Band-Aid.

I understand that making training changes within a police department can be like turning around the Titanic; so here are 10 ways patrol supervisors can reinforce “gear shift” thinking within their squad.

  1. When officers call you with a question, walk them through your decision-making process by asking these 3 questions: 1) What do you know? 2) What do you want to do? 3) What is your intent with the chosen solution? Then affirm their answer or provide other options, but ultimately leave the decision up to the officer unless it endangers or violates rights.
  2. Take the time to train officers in all of the department’s available resources and referral services such as crisis lines, shelters, etc. Knowing the options available to them increases the number of possible solutions to a call for service.
  3. Debrief calls in detail and discuss alternative options at critical decision points.
  4. Send officers to outside trainings that build their knowledge base in other roles such as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), negotiating, and de-escalation techniques.
  5. Be on the road as a resource to your officers, but refrain from taking over calls unless necessary. Help them to recognize opportunities to use the department’s available resources and referral services when making an arrest is not the best “gear” to be in. Remember, solutions not Band-Aids.
  6. Tabletop training scenarios in briefing with multiple acceptable endings: arrest, warning/discretion, use a resource, or make a referral. Just like reality, there is rarely a single correct answer.
  7. Discuss de-escalation techniques and how to tone down “command presence” without sacrificing officer safety. Have officers that have attended training on topics like this share what they learned upon returning to the squad.
  8. Recognize and reward thoughtful, creative problem solving in briefing. What you reward will be repeated.
  9. Bring experts into briefing to discuss department resources and all the ways they are available to help officers when they are on calls. Do not assume that your officers know all of the resources available to them.
  10. Train your officers to be leaders on calls. When officers from other squads are hesitant to make a decision, your officers can take them over and set the example of finding solutions.

So, how does law enforcement need to be training for the future? Not just as warriors and not just as guardians, but as thoughtful officers that respond to situations in the most appropriate gear for finding solutions to the problems they are presented with.

The mission at Thin Blue Line of Leadership is to inspire law enforcement leaders to be better than they were yesterday. Positive leadership and creating a positive squad culture are on-going commitments that must be nurtured and developed over time. To lead your officers in this direction, you have to make the most out of the precious time you have available in briefing to establish the culture you wish for them to demonstrate on your road.

Share your thoughts or comments with us below or on our Facebook page. Continue saving the world one call at a time and as always, LEAD ON!


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