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Police Officers As Civic Leaders: Reframe, Reform And Fund

Police Officers As Civic Leaders: Reframe, Reform And Fund

Policymakers, law enforcement leaders and line officers have discussed two competing approaches to policing: police as “warriors” or police as “guardians.” At a recent seminar on police reform, the question was posed regarding which moniker was appropriate for the role of law enforcement.

The author responded that both categorizations were meaningless as a practical matter. They are also inadequate. The discussion on policing should be broader and encompass more than the myopic roles of warrior or guardian in order to provide a more useful framework for the daily functions of an officer. The proper conceptual approach to policing should be that an officer is a civic leader.

In August 2020, the author attended a de-escalation training session, which focused on reducing the need for force — or reducing the amount of force used if force became necessary. This training included a segment which educated participants on how to create the circumstances by which an officer could recover without force from errors in perception. This concept is referred to as resilience and is a component of tactical de-escalation (personal communication, Paul Taylor, 2020). 

In everyday life, there are examples of mechanisms designed to prevent catastrophic events initiated by perceptual or performance errors. For instance, governing bodies know that a portion of drivers will drift off the road or into oncoming traffic. The rumble strips placed alongside or down the centerline of many roadways alert drivers to their erroneous perceptions as to the location of their car on the road. The rumble strip does not stop drivers from looking at their phone, nodding off or adjusting the radio, behaviors that can result in the error of leaving the appropriate lane of travel. But it is a mechanism that affords drivers the time or opportunity to recover by alerting them before it is too late to correct the error.

A backup alarm on a vehicle serves the same purpose — it is an alert which allows a person to change behaviors that are the result of not paying attention to, or misinterpreting, the correct visual cues. Building these types of mechanisms into policing practices, in the form of tactics, should likewise be the norm. Unfortunately, there were some officers who attended the de-escalation course that were derisive in their assessment of the usefulness of the training and lamented what was really needed was warrior training.

Tactical de-escalation is warrior training and enables police officers to be more than just warriors. It is an essential component of how we reform policing. It is unfortunate that “warrior training” is understood to mean only those activities which revolve around the application of force/violence. The author, a former infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, where “warrior” training is common, has found very little crossover application to policing, or at least few skills that directly transfer to law enforcement.

Those not in the military lack exposure to the warfighting philosophy espoused by Sun Tsu, in “The Art of War,” a reading assigned for professional development in the United States Marine Corps. As Tsu states, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill” (Sun-tzu & Griffith, 1963, p. 77). This lesson encapsulates the desired outcome for both military engagements and policing engagements.

Extensive “warrior” training is necessary for officers to possess the essential skills that allow them to make better decisions and achieve better outcomes during violent — or potentially violent — encounters. When officers identify a safety issue, they must act and act decisively. Officers must therefore be conversant in violence so that violent encounters do not overwhelm their cognitive ability to see alternatives to a problem in the moment.

A lack of training on how to manage violence will negatively impact their ability to successfully perform physical skills that might quickly end an encounter. It is well established that violent confrontations cause a stress response in the participants. A stress response may impede executive function and result in poor decision making (Shields et al., 2016) as well as impair motor performance (Anderson et al., 2019).

Several recent and controversial uses of force were causally linked to the failure of officers to successfully control a suspect or the decisions made when less-lethal tools failed to work in the way that officers anticipated. These are training issues that, if addressed, may have prevented the subsequent fatal outcome.

As examples, two officers should be able to maintain control of a single suspect on the ground without the need to use more than empty-hand control techniques. Officers should be well versed in ensuring target identification and round accountability — which includes inhibiting shots when one does not have the first or have a reasonable expectation of achieving the second. This type of training takes time, which equates to an increased financial commitment. Most agencies will not commit these resources to training their officers, leaving them ill-equipped to effectively deal with emerging threats. Citizens are less safe due to this lack of investment.

To be clear, violence is chaotic, stress-inducing, and can lead to decreased cognitive and motor performance abilities. These factors can cause perceptual and motor skill errors that may result in poor or even catastrophic outcomes, but these errors are a part of the human condition and are not necessarily criminal (Reason, 2017). Meaningful, realistic training can likely reduce the fear response through an officer’s confidence in dealing with a threat, thereby improving decision-making and outcomes (Ahammer et al., 2019, Woodman & Hardy, 2003). Meaningful training can also create procedural memories that “lead to purposeful action” during fear-based cognitive impairment (Robinson & Bridges, 2011, para. 20), ensuring that goal directed-activities are performed even in the absence of conscious thought.

Why is this training not provided now? One factor is the reality that police use of force is statistically very rare. A two-year study of three mid-size departments showed that less than 1 in 128 arrests resulted in a use of force and that 98 percent of those resulted in minor or no injury (Bozeman et al., 2018, p. 471-472).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (2018) reported an estimated 53.5 million official interactions between the police and citizens aged 16 and older in 2015 (para. 1). During 2015, and consistently since, police officers kill approximately 1,000 people per year in the line of duty (Wertz et al., 2020). That is a police killing rate of .0019 percent. Removing clearly justifiable shootings reduces that number even further.

Importantly, data has shown that “only one citizen death occurred for every 15 deadly weapon attacks” against police officers in 2015 (Johnson, 2016, p.5). This statistic is congruent with the research reporting that “police officers exercised restraint in deadly force in 93 percent of the situations in which they legally could have fired their weapon” (Pinizzotto et al., 2012, p.295). 

This reality is often ignored because the sheer volume of media coverage surrounding unjust or controversial uses of force lead many to believe that these instances occur far more frequently than they do (Kornell, 2014). Compounding the statistically errant belief is the very real history of racial injustice, such as the enforcement of legislation by law enforcement designed to injure or impede Black Americans’ pursuit of equitable treatment and opportunities, which can impact the interpretation of visual scenes through personal belief systems.

A use of force can (and will) be interpreted very differently depending on a person’s experiences and social identity — even when all viewers are exposed to the same visual information, i.e. a video of an event (Andrews et al., 2018). This does not stop with visual information — what a person hears, tastes, feels and smells can be perceived differently as the result of socially constructed beliefs (Xiao et al., 2016). 

Without an understanding of how people derive different viewpoints about a shared event, the foreseeable result of sensory input being interpreted differently is conflict. As such, accusations of deliberate mischaracterization, lying about what was said or meant during an interaction or disagreements regarding the necessity of the amount and type of force used will not be wholly, or even partially, mitigated by law enforcement’s adoption of body-worn cameras.

This perceptual phenomenon also exposes the danger of any public policy/service entity exerting sole influence or decision-making when that body’s membership lacks diversity (including diversity of thought).

One need to only sample different news organizations to see this play out in real time and to illustrate why a community will have misgivings about an agency evaluating their own officers’ use of force incidents, or why policing agencies will have misgivings about a Civilian Review Board composed of anti-police activists. So while the reality of the use of force by police is starkly different than currently believed, current training practices continue to aggravate the beliefs of police violence held by many Americans.

A second factor is both the rarity of controversial police killings and the fact that “insurance policies and city and county budgets usually pay for judgments and claims” (Corley, 2020, p.13). Police agencies have no fiscal urgency to prioritize training, and municipalities pass on the cost to taxpayers.

Again, it is important to reiterate that there are statistically very few uses of force, to include police killings — and even fewer controversial ones, a result of human performance which largely adapts to produce acceptable outcomes (Hollnagel, 2017) and because officers primarily use less-lethal methods of force (Bozeman et. al, 2018). However, the greater the sample size, the more likely that some instance of error will occur in a deadly force encounter. It is a statistical certainty throughout time.

Therefore, “warrior” training — real, decision-based and frequent — would likely reduce those instances of error even more and improve policing outcomes across the spectrum of police-citizen encounters. This type of training would enable officers to be more confident in their ability to effectively navigate high-stress, fast-paced environments (Hoang et al., 2016). As such, “warrior” training is essential for policing but being a warrior is not the role of a police officer.

The “guardian” concept of policing began to be discussed more broadly when it was included in the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, published in 2015. It was thereafter championed as the role for police officers by some law enforcement leaders — and could be used, depending on the definition of “guardian.”

The Task Force report used Plato’s “Republic” as a foundation for the concept. In Plato’s “Republic,” Guardians had two roles, either as soldiers or as politicians in the form of philosopher-kings.  Plato’s Guardians were warriors; the terms are synonymous, and in the Republic, there was no distinction in education (i.e. training) between guardians who would face an external threat and those that would keep the peace internally.

This is not surprising when one considers that enforcing laws, keeping the peace and restoring order can ultimately call for the use of state-sanctioned violence. As such, even guardians must prepare for that eventuality in a meaningful way.

More importantly, in Plato’s “Republic,” citizens were deemed to be suited to a single role, whether that be a shoemaker or a soldier. It was held that a person could only do one task well.   Plato argued that “each individual can practice one pursuit well, he cannot practice many well, and if he tried to do this and dabbled in many things, he would surely fail to achieve distinction in all of them” (Plato & Reeve, 2004, p.76).

This is a cautionary tale in the context of public safety reform. It was certainly not proposed that an individual have multiple, and often conflicting, roles but this is currently the expectation for modern police departments and their officers. Citizens and politicians expect officers to be legal scholars, diplomats, psychologists, mediators, marriage counselors, world-class marksmen, self-defense experts, Formula 1 race-car drivers, forensic scientists, pharmacologists and social workers, unfazed by abuse one moment as to be compassionate in the next.

These expectations defy the reality of the human condition and capability and are the very antithesis of the role of Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Socrates asserts, “… our guardians must be kept away from all other crafts so as to be the most exact craftsmen of the city’s freedom, and practice nothing at all except what contributes to this….” (Plato & Reeve, 2004, p.76). 

The origins of the “guardian” model notwithstanding, even as a guardian of the Constitution or individual liberties, it is a role that is simultaneously too broad and not broad enough to capture the requirements of modern policing. Thus, being a “guardian” is merely a component of the policing role. It is important in the current atmosphere that our nation more precisely identifies the role officers will fill.  Warrior and guardian are insufficient and unsatisfactory models.

Instead, consider a model of the law enforcement officer as “Civic Leader.” The concept was first introduced to the author by Dr. Greg Thompson during a cultural diversity training roughly five years ago. A police officer fills a leadership role in the community and can influence the behaviors and attitudes of those they encounter, both as an informal leader and through positional authority.

Successful leaders influence others by being honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring — in short, by being credible to those around them. (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). The notion that an officer, as a community leader, can use this credibility to influence others is overlaid with the concept of civic engagement. A useful definition of civic engagement was published in The New York Times (2003) from the work “Civic Responsibility and Higher Education” (Ehrlich, 2000):

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes (p. vi).

The person involved in civic engagement was described as follows:

A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate (p. xxvi).

These concepts encompass how an officer should view their role and approach the profession of policing. The qualities of confidence, competence, creativity and compassion are essential for good policing, but these qualities do not arise in a vacuum. The profession of policing requires a commitment to a lifelong learning process; it requires continued personal development through training and exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking.

It is a process of incrementally improving and evolving every day. It takes a culture of discipline that is not often witnessed in policing supervision or agencies. A police officer should have the personal discipline to continue in academic pursuits, be physically fit, maintain proficiency in empty-hand, less-lethal and lethal means of achieving societal goals, and expose oneself to different viewpoints in order to better understand and develop empathy for others.

The exposure to other viewpoints is critical. More specifically, the ability to understand other perspectives is critical. One need not agree with a different perspective but should understand the foundation of a person’s beliefs precisely because beliefs drive decision making and resultant behaviors. As an example, the issue of race and policing is a recurrent societal issue that should be understood by officers — and officers need to be open to this conversation. An officer who approaches policing as a civic leader would both understand and embrace efforts at understanding others’ beliefs. 

One of the most impactful presentations that the author experienced was the Groundwater Approach to understanding systemic inequities given by the Racial Equity Institute. At the invitation of a community advocate, the author attended a training session. The information powerfully illustrated disparate outcomes experienced across many systems (criminal justice, education, health care, employment, and more) by Black Americans.

The training was particularly meaningful because the instructor, Deena Hayes-Greene, presented social science research in an academic and educational way. She was particularly gracious and welcoming to the author as a person as well as a police officer. It created an environment where the information could be heard and was a paradigm shift for understanding the scope of racial inequalities.

It is a testament to the content and delivery by Ms. Hayes-Greene that this training continues to be pivotal to the author’s comprehension of the intersection of race on system outcomes. It caused a paradigm shift in perceptions associated with the author’s social identity, as discussed above.

This is an example of the nature of the type of education and the commitment to personal development that is at the heart of civic engagement. Of note is that this approach has a basis in behavioral science — critical, accusatory, aggressive and demeaning deliveries are counterproductive (Greville-Harris et al., 2016), often eliciting a rejection of both the message and the messenger (Thürmer & McCrea, 2018).

Recent implicit bias training conducted in Central Virginia for police officers and described below illustrates this point. Although evidence suggests that implicit bias training designed to change implicit measures does not result in behavioral changes (Forscher et al., 2019), this type of training is often undertaken to “check a box” for the community. The real value lies in introducing the concepts of heuristic based association and decision-making, which are important starting points for self-reflection and behavior analysis. 

However, this particular implicit bias training was largely panned by officers of every demographic because of the delivery. Two of the trainers were specifically mentioned as demonstrating a remarkably negative bias toward police officers and were condescending and argumentative — an irony that did not go unrecognized.

As such, officers who were mandated to be there left feeling attacked and angry, discarding any potential value from the training. Exposure to new ideas requires the proper approach and is essential to healthy development as a police officer — or citizen, for that matter. Much like warrior training, exposure to new ideas must be realistic (evidence-based), decision-centric (exploring the foundations of officer beliefs/behaviors), and frequent (not merely as the result of a catastrophic event). Most importantly, to be impactful, the training must be delivered in a way that the message is received and considered by the intended audience.

To this end, for policing to evolve and for police officers to perform at a level expected by citizens, more money and effort need to be invested in police officer education and training in order to mitigate poor outcomes and to develop officers as community assets with a community focus. Police leaders should embrace that officers are civic leaders whose goal is to ensure safety and improve the quality of life in their jurisdiction for all citizens in the jurisdiction.

This model of civic leader is simple. It provides guidance, and most importantly, it defines the officer’s role holistically. Associated with the civic leader designation is the expectation that officers know their role in the community and only do those things which are consistent with that role.

To that end, many of the current functions of policing would be better directed to other social service disciplines, a position that officers should champion — not resist. The civic leader will know which resources would best address both immediate and long-term problems in the community and coordinate with an interdisciplinary team to achieve desired outcomes by obtaining those resources. 

To fill the role of civic leader, officers must work to become a member of the community fabric and be motivated to respect community values while obtaining the knowledge and skills necessary to promote a better quality of life in their community, including legitimate law enforcement action when appropriate. Legitimate meaning that there is an actual safety or quality of life issue being addressed and that would merit the intervention and potential use of violence for achieving that goal. Otherwise, a different intervention should be initiated.

The model of warrior or guardian stops at safety, crime prevention and protecting liberties while the Civic Leader Model uses them as a starting point — and promotes innovation to be more than just enforcers. Officers who know when to engage in a formal or informal capacity and when to step back are civic leaders, and their daily decisions and behavior will have a lasting impact on the community. 

A mature, well-educated, well-trained officer who applies a civic-leader approach to policing, will improve this impact by more consistently providing positive outcomes — outcomes expected and accepted by the broader community. This is what community policing is and should be. It is not a program, a unit or occasional event. It is immersion into a neighborhood by an officer with a unique skill set and commitment to helping others.

Developing officers into civic leaders will cost agencies in time, money and available staffing.  This is an investment that law enforcement leadership must embrace. It is past time to move on from discussing the role of policing as simply a choice between a warrior or guardian and to embrace policing re(frame)form that creates confident, competent, creative and compassionate officers who are given the skills and support to be effective civic leaders in their jurisdictions. •

About the Author: Brian N. O’Donnell is a Lieutenant with the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department. He served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and has served as a police officer with the Charlottesville police department for over 24 years. He has a B.A. in economics from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from Liberty University. Lt. O’Donnell is a 2016 graduate of the University of Virginia’s National Criminal Justice Command College, earned the Advanced Specialist designation by the Force Science Institute in 2018, and became an IADLEST National Certified Instructor in 2020. Lt. O’Donnell is currently assigned to the Patrol Division as the 2nd Shift Commander.


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