What a use of force incident in a classroom can teach cops about 'warrior' vs. 'guardian' mindset

The guardian officer begins with the end in mind and then considers the least-aggressive strategy


By Patrick J. Solar, Ph.D., PoliceOne Special Contributor 

On the morning of October 26th, I saw the news footage of Deputy Ben Fields at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina extracting a student from a her classroom. As a veteran police officer and chief, my thought was: "Here we go again."  

Law enforcement can be a violent endeavor. Yet when we see it portrayed on television, we can easily take exception to the behavior of our officers. That behavior can leave people in shock. With that in mind, my first question was: "Why are we calling a police officer in to take a cell phone away from a 16-year-old girl? Is this beyond the capabilities of teachers and school administrators?" 

Experienced teachers should know how to effectively deal with a disruptive student without calling the police. Why is it now the job of the police? Traditional cops are warriors. Do we really need to go to war when dealing with 16-year old girls who refuse to give up their phones? 

Perhaps it’s time for police chiefs to say no to calls like this, at least until their personnel are better-equipped to deal with them. The increasing ambiguity of the job is causing enormous stress for our police officers, who are already overworked and under scrutiny.  How can officers be better equipped to respond to these types of calls? They must understand when to use the warrior and guardian mindsets.

When to Think Like a Warrior
Rule number one for the warrior: Physical force can only be used when there is a reasonable belief that a criminal offense has occurred or is about to occur. If there is no criminal offense suspected, physical force, no matter how reasonable, is unlawful. In short, if a stop or an arrest cannot be justified, no force can be used.

As I reflect on the many times I employed force (violence) in my law enforcement officer role, I am grateful that the video camera was not yet commonplace. Law officers only became aware that their actions could be publicly criticized after the Rodney King case in the 1990s. Post-King, I instructed my recruit officers to assume that everything they did was being recorded. This should be common advice today. Widespread criticism of the police has all but eliminated pro-active law enforcement, and the result is having profound consequences in our urban centers, injuring the most vulnerable among us, people who need aggressive law enforcement the most.  

The warrior mentality is evident in this video; it has dominated law enforcement training programs. Warriors apprehend criminal perpetrators just like the hunter seeks out his or her prey. If the suspect resists, our use of reasonable force is legally justified, and if they get injured as a result, it's their fault. After all, these people are violating society's rules, and their behavior needs to be corrected.

Law enforcement officers are trained in how to use force, when to escalate it, and in the requirement to de-escalate it once resistance stops. But even when the use of force is legally justified, is it wise

When to Think Like a Guardian
I draw a distinction between law enforcement, which is based on the warrior mentality, and policing, which is steeped in the service model, or “guardian” model as it’s now commonly called. Here is how this distinction manifests itself in this recent situation. 

After being told to put away her cell phone, the student rebelled, violating the reasonable rules established in the learning environment. The teacher asked her to surrender her phone, and then to leave after she refused to do so. An administrator was called because the student refused to do what she was told. The administrator tried the same tactic and then decided to call in the school resource officer. One might ask a question at this point: “What was expected of this officer?” 

The answer: removal of the disruptive student, presumably by force. And that is exactly what the officer did. 

When the student refused to comply, the officer escalated the use of force (perhaps without lawful authority), subdued the student, and then de-escalated force, just like he was trained. But the outcome here was terrible.

In such a situation, police officers should ask: "What am I here to accomplish?" The answer is the same: removal of a disruptive student. But the guardian officer begins with the end in mind1 and then considers the least-aggressive strategy.

Step 1: Consider what is motivating the student. 
This student is likely being motivated by the attention she is receiving as the result of her bad behavior. 

Step 2: How can I remove the incentive for bad behavior? 
Clear the room.2 If there is no audience, there is no motivation to perform. 

Step 3: How can I create an incentive to help this student do the right thing? Or how can I make it difficult for this student to continue doing the wrong thing? 
Surround her with towering adults. We make her uncomfortable by proximity, not force. Then we use reason and persuasion to gain her voluntary compliance. "I can see that you are having a bad day. Would you like to talk about it in my office?"

Believe me, only a rare teen is going to sit there and be defiant with an authoritative figure just inches from their face, bad breath and all. We just need make sure to leave him or her a path of exit so that he or she can extricate themselves from the situation.

Wise policing requires thinking about the desired outcome, not merely following correct procedure. Focusing on the end goal provides strategic advantages over those who are not thinking critically. 

The guardian mindset is a hallmark of wise policing, the kind that will restore public trust. The warrior is still necessary, but the wise officer keeps the warrior on a tight leash, only letting it come out when justified. This is a tall order for today's police officers, and no amount of training can make it a reality. Wisdom requires a high level of emotional intelligence and the equivalent of a liberal arts college degree. This is not to say that someone without a bachelor's degree is incapable of being a great police officer, but I will rest my argument on the following quote from the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967):

"It is nonsense to state or assume that the enforcement of the law is so simple that it can be done best by those unencumbered by the study of liberal arts. Police agencies need personnel in their ranks who have the characteristics which a college education seeks to foster; a capacity to relate the events of the day to the social, political, and historical context in which they occur." 

About the Author
Dr. Patrick J. Solar has been a police officer for nearly 30 years serving as a street officer, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Chief of Police. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and teaches in the Master of Science in Criminal Justice program offered online.


1A famous quote from Steven Covey. ​
2This comes from my wife "Sam" who was trained in this as part of her education as a special education teacher years ago.  ​

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