This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Once again, the country has been rocked by videos of police officers engaged in unconscionable abuse. Once again, people have taken to the streets, demanding change. Once again, elected officials are scrambling to propose solutions. This is a depressingly familiar story, but there is reason for optimism, however guarded. Something feels different this time.
We have seen egregious misconduct and protests before. But unlike other points in recent history, there is a growing appreciation within policing that the status quo is untenable. Long-time police observers will recognize that the public criticism from rank-and-file officers about how their peers handled the George Floyd incident or the resulting protests is simply unprecedented. Perhaps, at long last, we have reached a point where a critical mass of community members, police leaders, and officers themselves are looking for a better path forward.
Policing must evolve, and it can do so by developing a Guardian culture. Guardian policing, which has been championed by notable police leaders, has been defined as a service-oriented approach that emphasizes protecting community members from unnecessary indignity and harm, including the potential indignities and harms that can result from policing itself.
Being Guardians does not somehow render police incapable of dealing with the very real threats they sometimes face. There will still be occasions when officers have to use force, including deadly force. As much as we wish it were otherwise, officers will need to be capable Warriors — meaning they must have the ability and willingness to be assertive, forceful, even combative when the situation requires. But if that is all that officers can do, or if it is primarily how they view themselves, they aren’t going to be very good at serving their communities.
The distinction between Warrior and Guardian is not mere semantics. There is good reason to believe that mindset affects how officers approach and interact with community members. Imagine the difference it would have made for George Floyd, or Martin Gugino, or Walter Scott, or even any number of peaceful protestors if the officers who interacted with them viewed them as community members worthy of respect instead of suspects to be dominated.
Changing officers’ mindsets begins in the academy. Too many academies retain a traditional “boot camp” environment where would-be officers must stand and salute instructors who ignore, yell at, or denigrate, them. The problem for police cadets is that academy instructors model how people in authority should behave when they interact with those whom they have authority over. Breaking cadets down so they can be built back up again may be entirely appropriate in the military context, where soldiers must learn to operate in tight-knit units that will have to obey dangerous orders under combat conditions. But it is not an appropriate model for policing, where individual officers have significant autonomy to make decisions in an operational environment where earning someone’s cooperation typically goes much further than demanding their compliance. The good news is these changes are beginning to take place at some agencies. Police academies across the country — such as the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission — have fostered a supportive environment that is both conducive to student learning and capable of stress-testing would-be officers so they are fully prepared for a range of duties.
Beyond the academy, developing a Guardian mindset continues in field-training, when rookie officers learn from more experienced peers. The lessons they pick up, not just in formal training but also through hours of casual conversation, are how rookies internalize their role in the community — how they should interact with community members and what other officers expect from them. Few things are more important to shaping culture or behavior than peer expectations. This is how officers learn what “good policing” looks like. Knowing that other officers do not care about or even approve of misconduct will inevitably result in more problems than when officers hold each other to high standards.
Fostering a Guardian culture will require police leaders, at all ranks, to be more than managers. They must be “norms entrepreneurs,” committed to changing the principles and values of policing as a whole and their agency in particular. Effective organizations operate from the inside out. To shift how officers interact with people outside the agency, agencies have to change how police leaders and supervisors interact with officers inside the agency. To do that, police leaders will need to develop their own capabilities: modeling the behaviors they want to see from officers. In many agencies, that will require changing how police leadership is done.
It starts with shifting how leaders conceive of their role. They cannot just work at their agency, they need to work on their agency. It is not enough for a police chief or sheriff to leave their agency or department as good as they found it; they need to make it better, and they must encourage their subordinates, down to the line officers, to adopt the same approach.
As the work of leadership shifts, so do the capabilities required. Traditionally, promotion into leadership positions is based on tenure, test-taking abilities, or personal connections. But that strengthens the status quo and rewards those who fit into and reinforce the existing cultural norms. Agencies should reject that outdated model and instead deliberately invest in the development of future leaders. Promotions should go to those who have developed and demonstrated the necessary skills and capabilities, regardless of time-in-rank.
As leaders committed to developing the agency, police supervisors — at all ranks — must exemplify emotional intelligence, effective communication, a commitment to developing values-based processes that model internal procedural justice, and an understanding of how change happens and how to effectively lead that change. Equipped with these capabilities, leaders are better able to do the work required in improving the functionality of the agency. For example, developing a set of values-based decision making criteria for all levels of leadership would produce more deliberate, consistent decisions for internal agency work. Teaching officers to make values-driven tactical decisions is essential, but it won’t be enough; we need values-driven strategic decisions as well.
To foster a Guardian culture, leaders must also put in place the mechanisms of a learning organization. That means turning attention inward so the agency learns to overcome its own shortcomings. This isn’t entirely new to policing; tactical after-action reviews are a common — though regrettably not universal — practice to allow the agency to learn what they can from high-risk and high-consequence events so that they can improve future outcomes. This same construct can be focused internally — intentionally developing after-action reviews for how well the leadership team facilitated high impact, strategic decisions (such as handling the aftermath of a critical incident or the implementation of a significant policy change). Were those strategic decisions made and implemented in a way that bolstered, rather than undermined, the agency’s commitment to Guardian policing? Agencies can’t know unless they ask the hard questions, and right now most don’t.
The confluence of factors that have led to this moment in American policing present the opportunity for significant progress that will positively impact citizens and officers alike. The challenge is to foster a culture of innovation in a field that is deeply rooted in tradition and the way things have always been done. Innovative solutions will require the space to actually innovate, with equal support given to the process of change and the outcomes, as well as shared purpose and priorities for all involved in and impacted by policing. Without Guardian leadership, Guardian policing may prove unattainable.
Karen Collins Rice is an organizational performance consultant who has worked with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, National Police Foundation, and multiple police agencies. She is the President of Rice Performance.
Seth W. Stoughton is a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former officer. He is the co-author of Evaluating Police Uses of Force.
- Contributions allow us to hire more journalists
- Contributions allow us to provide free memberships to those who cannot afford them
- Contributions support independent, non-corporate journalism