logo for print

Cops respond: What 1 word best defines the police mindset?

Whatever it’s called — guardian, warrior, both, or something different — mindset matters immensely

The mindset of America’s police has become a topic of national debate in the wake of highly publicized officer-involved shootings, national protests, and a Presidential Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing that included in its recommendations, “Law enforcement should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”

The task force partnered police, non-profit and community organizers, and criminal justice scholars. They traveled the nation holding town-hall style meetings to listen to testimony and gather input before issuing their report in May 2015.

But the police profession was debating mindset well before Ferguson and the task force report. One of the less publicized reasons for that internal debate was the number of cities coming under settlements or consent decrees with the Department of Justice for unconstitutional patterns of police practices.

Cops Make Two Lists
These legal mandates are costly on many levels. Their implementation — requiring changes in training, policies, and procedures — demand a look at what led to the unconstitutional police practices. Police mindset is one of the factors examined. Whatever it’s called — guardian, warrior, both, or something different — mindset matters immensely.

In the last several months, I have had the opportunity to deliver a training session entitled The Winning Mindset for 21st Century Policing: Warrior, Guardian, Both, or Something Different. During those seminars, I’ve had the opportunity to pose the following question to LEOs in attendance in places like Plano (Texas), Anchorage (Alaska), and Loveland (Colo.):

“What do you think are top strengths and weaknesses of a 21st century police officer?”

Here’s a compilation of police officers’ one-word answers (not in any particular order):


  • Professionalism
  • ​Progressive
  • Decision-making
  • Communication
  • Empathetic
  • Fair
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Good tactics
  • Listens
  • Compassionate
  • Adaptable
  • Knowledgeable
  • Integrity
  • Vision
  • Training
  • Problem solver
  • Positive attitude
  • Curiosity
  • Humor


  • Defensive
  • Biased
  • Dishonest
  • Know-it-all
  • Quick to judge
  • Complacency
  • Uncompromising
  • Rigid
  • Ego
  • Cowardice
  • Immaturity
  • Cynical
  • Short-sighted
  • Lack of communication
  • Impatient
  • Judgmental
  • Tunnel vision    
  • Negative attitude
  • Arrogance
  • Lack of confidence

Knowledge vs. Attitude
I then asked the officers to decide whether each of the listed strengths and weaknesses is primarily knowledge-driven or attitude-driven and to put a K or an A next to the trait. I invite you to do the same.

In every training session there was a decisive pattern. Officers decided that 80 to 90 percent of the strengths and weaknesses were primarily driven by attitude. Even those that were first considered knowledge based, such as “knowledgeable,” had a strong attitude component upon further examination.

Have you ever known someone who knew a lot — who was a super subject matter expert — who acted like an idiot? Or was so arrogant or had such poor communication skills that their knowledge was of little use to them or anyone else? Knowledge alone isn’t a strength unless it’s empowered by wisdom, humility, and effective communication — all of which are attitude driven.

Attitude is just another word for mindset. According to cops as widely scattered as Texas, Colorado, and Alaska, 80 percent to 90 percent of what it takes to be a great or lousy police officer in the 21st century is determined by mindset. The above lists prove that whatever we call the winning mindset, cops have decided what it embodies.

The debate about what to call the winning mindset for 21st century policing is continuing within the profession and on a national stage. Opinions vary amongst police and the public, likely informed by their different perceptions of what different words mean. Frequently bandied terms include warrior, guardian, both, or something different such as sheepdog, sentinel, paladin, blue knight, or just plain ‘cop.’

Words matter — as this debate demonstrates. Whatever term is settled on to describe the winning police mindset for the 21st century, that mindset should reflect the strengths listed above, and disavow the weaknesses.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2017 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.