Out With The Warrior, In With The Guardian. Transforming Police Culture

Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.
Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.

By Deborah Ramirez, Tara Lai Quinlan, and Marcus Wraight

In a recent town hall meeting in Ohio, Donald Trump called for the national use of the controversial police "stop and frisk" practice. Trump claimed the practice "worked incredibly well" in New York City. Even beyond issues of constitutionality, what Trump critically failed to grasp was that it was used to racially profile large numbers of Blacks and Latinos. Trump also failed to recognize the significant role stop and frisk played in damaging relations between police and New York City's ethnic minority communities. Now, amidst a national climate which national law enforcement leaders like Charles H. Ramsey, retired commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, are calling for police to repair their relationships with ethnic communities across the nation, something must be done. The answer is changing the culture of policing from a warrior model to a guardian model.

In far too many communities, the police are viewed -- by both themselves and the citizens they are charged with protecting -- as warriors occupying hostile territory. Instead, the police must act as trusted community partners working collaboratively with community members to make their neighborhoods stronger and safer.

How do we achieve this? By doing things differently. Acting differently. Training differently. Promoting differently. By changing the way policing is approached from a warrior to a guardian model. President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing begins to describe this model of policing and recommends its introduction nationwide.

The question is: How do we get there?

It is clear that to harness the full strength of the guardianship model, policing must become more transparent and accountable. Body and patrol car cameras can provide the community with the information they need to be true and respected partners in the policing enterprise. When there are grave police incidents, police videos should be released in a timely manner so police do not give the appearance of hiding anything.

Police supervisors should also assess an officer's video footage as part of the standard promotion and assessment process. During these regular reviews, supervisors should use randomly selected video footage in order to evaluate officers on four important criteria:

• In the recorded footage, was the officer respectful?
• Was the officer courteous?
• Did the officer follow training?
• Did the officer attempt to de-escalate a hostile encounter?

In addition, during reviews officers should also be invited to select video footage showcasing some of their best policing, including particularly effective de-escalation techniques and community engagement.

By standardizing the use of these processes, police officers can begin to collect video footage of best practices in creative approaches and effective de-escalation techniques that could be incorporated into compulsory de-escalation training modules. Adopting these measures can signal the beginning of the police cultural transformation that needs to take place by emphasizing innovative guardianship metrics and different types of training, not the traditional warrior metrics like numbers of arrests, and stops and frisks, which prove problematic time and time again.

But other reforms must also take place to change police culture. Perceptions about race and racial profiling are at the heart of the community critique of policing. Many communities of color believe they are treated differently and more harshly by police. In order to assess such concerns and ensure that policing is bias-free, police need to implement mandatory racial profiling data collection systems that record the racial demographics of police activities like stops and searches. We need to measure these because police -- like all of us -- suffer from implicit biases that they are sometimes unaware of. By shining a light on this with actual data, we can help police understand the reality of their practices and help them work to change their behaviors.

Finally, we need a new way to deal with officers who continue to adhere to the warrior mentality through engaging in risky or hostile encounters, especially those that result in the death or severe injury of civilians. Too many officers who engage in problematic police behaviors remain on the force. We must therefore also consider requiring all police officers to carry personal liability insurance. While police departments could feasibly pay the general insurance premiums, officers could become responsible for paying any increases in the premiums that stem from engaging in risky police behavior. Just as all car drivers must have car insurance, police could also be required to carry policies tied to their conduct. And just as insurance companies rate drivers each year based on their driving behavior, police could be similarly assessed. Under this model it is conceivable that officers who repeatedly engage in risky police behaviors could be priced out of policing altogether.

As a nation we all have a stake in changing police culture from a warrior to guardian model. All of us need to do our part to solve this problem. We support the bi-partisan Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, which encompasses many of these reforms, and urge others to call their Congressional representatives and urge its passage.

Repairing community-police relations and building the necessary trust and legitimacy will not be easy, and will take time. But the current state of affairs provides us with both extraordinary challenges and extraordinary opportunities for real and meaningful reform. Let us roll up our sleeves and begin the journey.


Deborah Ramirez is a Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law, and has testified several times before Congress about community-police partnerships.

Tara Lai Quinlan is a lawyer and criminologist whose research focuses on policing, terrorism and criminal justice, and Lecturer in Law and Diversity at University of Sheffield, UK.

Marcus Wraight is a student at Northeastern University School of Law.