The Ethical Warrior: Developing a cop's combat mindset


One popular phrase says: “Be polite and professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” It may sound sensible to some and cool to others, but both perspectives may fail to examine what that really means. What is the mindset of the person who adopts this philosophy? Is it that of a protector, or that of a killer?

A combat mindset — the ability to act effectively and ethically under adversity — is key to the Ethical Warrior. Being effective under stress requires the ability to overcome emotional and autonomic impulses that might keep us from performing well in combat — or get us killed. Our perspective is that clarified ethics makes you more effective — and safer — in a combat situation. After all, what are ethics but life-protecting values in action?

Philosophy Drives Actions
Many things happen in the mind of a law enforcement officer when an encounter with a suspect turns violent. Training, judgment and self control compete with confusion, anger and fear. Be careful of what you prime your mind with. The officer needs to instantly take the necessary actions to protect himself or herself and others — that’s the job. The actions need to be effective, legal and appropriate for the level of danger involved and, for many reasons including the officer’s own mental health, they have to be ethical. In today’s world, it is also likely the encounter will be captured on video. How can we develop a mindset that will produce a result that accomplishes the mission and guards against legal and ethical problems?

Preparation for the critical moment requires a synergistic program of ethical, physical and mental training. In previous articles we have discussed the relationship between ethics and tactics. We explored how using physical skills to activate the universal moral value of protecting life produced ethical actions. We now turn to the third critical element: developing the mindset that produces fast and effective ethical action under the pressure of physical danger.

The Three Disciplines
To get a fresh perspective, we use the U.S. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) as a frame of reference. Marines involved in counterinsurgency operations are often placed in a role similar to a peace officer. They protect and serve the communities in their areas of operation, interact with an often suspicious public, and do their best to build popular support for their work. When violence occurs, they are held accountable for using the appropriate amount of force along a defined continuum.

The Marines have found that the three disciplines of MCMAP — physical, mental and ethical — help them act decisively in the right way at the right time. It helps them act in a way that keeps faith with the people they are protecting, while helping them live with the consequences of their actions all while remaining the most effective fighting force in the world.

The phrase “mind-body-spirit” is often associated with the martial arts. Many people assume that this is a philosophical concept requiring years of study and mystical initiation. Actually, the connection between mind, body and spirit outlines a very accessible and practical system. Mind: the ability to organize and control ones thoughts; body: technical and tactical ability; and spirit: the moral clarity that guides ones actions, are the building blocks of the combat mindset.

Combat mindset is an attitude of awareness, confidence, and purpose — awareness of the situation, confidence in our physical skills, and clarity of our legal and ethical purpose. Whether it happens consciously or not, all physical actions begin in the mind. Even so-called “muscle memory” is just a faster version of the mind-body connection. The problem is that even on a good day, the mind is managing many things at once. The added stress of physical danger can turn multi-tasking into system overload. A well-developed combat mindset enables the quick effective thinking that triggers quick effective action. Again, what philosophical perspective are you priming your mind with?

Confidence in our physical skills can only come through effective training. Just as MCMAP is designed for military combat, there are many combative systems geared toward law enforcement. A system useful for developing the combat mindset should have some specific characteristics. The system should be based on sound tactical principles as much as fighting techniques. It should employ techniques that are simple to learn, easy to practice, and adaptable to many conflict situations. Finally, it should focus on keeping the officer’s weapon safe and available if needed. The goal is to develop a set of quickly deployable physical tools that can be used in a variety of dangerous situations.

The Ethical Warrior
We seek to attain the spirit of the Ethical Warrior to clarify our purpose. The warrior protects one’s self and others. The others can be a partner, a bystander or even the violent suspect. When a situation turns violent, this commitment to protect life forms the foundation of our purpose. This clarity provides reassurance that our use of physical force is for the right purpose, allowing us to act decisively with the confidence that we won’t regret our actions.

The goal of developing a combat mindset is to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason under extreme stress. Physical training and ethical clarity support a mindset that identifies and deals with danger in an effective and dispassionate way. Every officer knows that a quiet shift can instantly turn into the ultimate test. Developing a professional combat mindset can be an important tool for excelling at that test.

Let’s consider rewriting the popular phrase above to say: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to protect myself and all others, at all times, if at all possible.”

About the author

Jack E. Hoban is president of Resolution Group International and a subject matter expert for the U.S. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. Bruce J. Gourlie is a Federal Law Enforcement Officer and a former U.S. Army infantry officer.

Correspondence can be sent to both authors by emailing Hoban & Gourlie.

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