In a republic that honors the core of democracy — the greatest amount of power is given to those called Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.
BEGINNING in the 1960s with the so called “War on Drugs” and later fueled by post-9/11 fear, American policing has slowly drifted away from Plato’s vision of law enforcement by guardians toward a culture and mindset of warriors at war with the people we serve.
As a nation, we have tended to acquiesce and relinquish some of our sacred constitutional rights in favor of the perception of improved safety and security. Constitutional rights are now viewed by many, including police, as an impediment to the public-safety mission.
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Sadly, we seem to have forgotten that protecting constitutional rights — the foundation of our democracy — is the mission of our police. The images being broadcast from Ferguson, Mo., of peace officers clad in military-style uniforms using equipment designed for modern warfare, serve as an impetus for public-safety leaders and political leaders to pause and assess the state of American police culture.
It is easy to rush to judgment about the equipment — armored personnel carriers and high-powered rifles — and condemn its use by civilian police. In fact, this equipment can be essential for modern police forces to protect themselves and their communities from very real threats of the 21st century.
The fundamental issue is not the equipment — it’s the philosophy, policies and protocols directing its use. The equipment has been relatively easy to acquire, but carefully considered protocols have not. It’s time for law-enforcement and political leaders to step up and develop policies and protocols for the wise use of this valuable and sometimes necessary equipment, and more important, to address the culture that will determine acceptance of new model policies. Developing those policies will be relatively simple. Addressing the culture is tougher.
So where do we start? At the beginning, in the academy. Most police academies are run like military “boot camp” despite the absence of logical, evidence-based reasons to train police officers as we do soldiers. Although police officers wear uniforms and carry weapons, the similarity ends there.
The missions and rules of engagement are completely different. The soldier’s mission is that of a warrior: to conquer. The rules of engagement are decided before the battle. The police officer’s mission is that of a guardian: to protect.
The rules of engagement evolve as the incident unfolds. Soldiers must follow orders. Police officers must make independent decisions. Soldiers come into communities as an outside, occupying force. Guardians are members of the community, protecting from within.
This is not a simple distinction because the role of a police officer is not one-dimensional. There are times when the guardian officer must fight fierce battles, as a warrior, without hesitation or apology. So our guardians must also possess the skills of a warrior. The challenge of training new police recruits is to equip them with the judgment and confidence to properly balance both roles, rather than simply follow orders.
We need police officers with the skills and tenacity of a warrior, but the mindset of a guardian.
Sue Rahr is director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, overseeing the state-wide police academy. She is the former King County sheriff.