Warriors vs. Guardians: A seismic shift in policing or just semantics?

What started as a narrow concept of a warrior mindset during deadly confrontations has expanded and mutated into a prevailing culture – is it time for a change?


I’m old enough to have been working with cops before the warrior concept pervaded policing. Back then the officers I knew just considered themselves “cops.”

Then the warrior archetype started pervading the profession followed in recent years by calls that the pendulum needed to swing to a guardian mindset. A quick Google search shows this debate is still getting plenty of attention. It’s a conversation worth having – with all stakeholders at the table  – so let me draw your attention to an article I penned on the topic in 2015. Add your thoughts in the comments below. 

In the wake of highly publicized officer-involved shootings and at least 20 cities entering settlements or consent decrees with the Department of Justice for unconstitutional patterns of police practices, the White House created a task force in December 2014 to examine and make recommendations for 21st century policing. 

If a change from a warrior to a guardian culture in policing is warranted, where will such change come from and how should it be implemented? (Photo/PoliceOne)
If a change from a warrior to a guardian culture in policing is warranted, where will such change come from and how should it be implemented? (Photo/PoliceOne)

Chaired by a police commissioner and containing other police members, the task force’s report  last month urged, “Law enforcement should embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.” 

This isn’t a new idea. Many within policing have been urging such a change since before Ferguson. Here’s a précis of the debate on both sides. 

More than Semantics

Both sides of the warrior vs. guardian mindset think the issue is more than semantics.

Supporters of a warrior mindset believe it is critical to officer and public safety.

Lieutenant Chad Goeden – Commander of the Alaska DPS Training Academy – began implementing a guardian mindset when he first took command of the Academy. He specifically instructed his staff to stop using the term “warrior.” 

Asked if he thought this was just semantics, he responded, “Words matter.” So do archetypes and cultures.

Warrior Mindset Proponents

I believe the warrior mindset in policing started with the best of intentions – officer safety. When officers find themselves in a dangerous situation, they must have the mental mettle to never give up, fight on and prevail against all odds. 

While critical, such incidents are statistically rare. Lieutenant Dan Marcou, a warrior mindset proponent, acknowledged that much of police work is guardian work. Lt. Goeden estimates the breakout of police work as 90% guardian and 10% warrior.

From its narrow beginning as a mental mettle useful in rare incidents, the warrior mindset was expanded, extolled and embraced in police books, articles, interviews and training until it became a prevailing, venerated archetype and culture. The enculturation would begin in academies – often without the distinctions recognized by experienced professionals such as Lieutenants Marcou or Goeden. 

Proponents of a warrior mindset argue it is necessary to combat and defeat criminals. In this article, Marcou raised the specter of ISIS attacking the homeland. Others point to less exotic dangers. Because any police-citizen contact can become a deadly encounter – the argument goes – the warrior mindset must be ever present and vigilant. If people do what the police tell them to then there won’t be any trouble. Non-compliance can justify a warrior’s tactical response.

Guardian Mindset Proponents

These police professionals argue that a primary warrior mindset actually makes officers less safe by creating avoidable violence. Because violence is rare in police-citizen contacts, a constant warrior mindset and tactics can also trigger a negative or violent reaction that was avoidable. And not just in that incident. 

Treating every encounter with a warrior mindset and every citizen as a potential enemy doesn’t build cooperation and trust in the community. If the community doesn’t cooperate with the police, their job is more dangerous. 

Guardian mindset proponents believe that officers can be trained to be tactically safe without approaching every citizen as a potential enemy combatant. 

Goeden said, “If we’re warriors, who are we at war with?” 

The Washington Post discussed the warrior vs. guardian debate within policing Two Leesburg (Va.) police officers – Alex Hilton and Mark Davis – won praise for peacefully resolving a standoff with an armed mentally ill man. 

Their Chief, Joseph Price, said his department is trying to instill a “guardian mentality” in its officers rather than a “warrior mentality,” a culture that officers are there to “protect the citizens rather than conquer them.” 

Mike Woody, President of CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) International and a 25-year veteran officer in Akron, Ohio, remarked about the Leesburg incident and the change in policing and tactics over recent years saying “We did stuff like that all the time. It’s just what we did. It wasn’t newsworthy. But now we’ve gone too far with that warrior mindset of officers.”

Guardian mindset professionals also argue that warrior police have no place in a democratic society. Goeden has a sign that hangs above his door: 

“The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”

Stephen Covey and Michael Nila wrote in their book "The Nobility of Policing": 

“In Plato’s vision of a perfect society – in a republic that honors the core of democracy – the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.” 

The Future

Some in law enforcement are calling for a change from warrior mindset to guardian mindset and tactics, and they’ve been calling for that change for a lot longer than the current conversation. How do you see the future of police culture in our democratic society? 

  • Do 21st-century dangers justify warrior mindset training, tactics and culture amongst civilian police? 
  • If yes, how does the profession reconcile a warrior police culture with the principles of a democracy, including constitutional protections of the citizenry from the police?
  • If a guardian police culture is more effective in building community cooperation and trust, can it also acceptably prepare officers for the dangers they potentially face to their and the public’s safety?
  • If a change from a warrior to a guardian culture in policing is warranted, where will such change come from and how should it be implemented?

Raise these questions with your colleagues and have a discussion. Add your thoughts in the comments area below. If law enforcement fails to engage in this conversation, then changes will be foisted upon our officers without their input. And that probably won’t be popular among cops. 

This article, originally published in April 2015, has been updated.

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