“Us Versus Them” in Policing: What Causes Warrior Cops?
By Scot DuFour, alumnus, American Public University
In April 2019, Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, announced the city would ban all police officers from attending any “fear-based or warrior training.” The city’s leadership determined that warrior-style training, which reportedly focuses heavily on using force and creating a battlefield-like mindset, is counterproductive to the mission of the police department because it conditions officers to treat every citizen as a potential threat and emphasizes an “us versus them” mentality in officers.
This debate about “warrior cops,” accompanied by law enforcement’s use of military-like weapons and tactics, has been a central theme of policing critics for years. However, such arguments continue to misidentify the real problem that leads to inappropriate use of force by officers.
The problem is not military-style weapons nor teaching officers how to fight for their lives in very violent encounters. Instead, law enforcement faces a battle to ensure officers have a healthy, balanced, and authentic mindset about their role and influence on society.
Warrior Training Isn’t the Problem
During my 15 years as an officer, I personally never liked using the term “warrior” as it relates to policing. The vast majority of police work involves absolutely zero violence and instead requires skills in conflict resolution, communication, writing, and logic.
However, to protect the public, officers are trained and equipped to respond to violent encounters. There are more than a few recent examples of terrorist-style mass killings that support the need for such training; officers must be able to stop lunatics with assault rifles in elementary schools, churches, concerts, movie theaters, and other public spaces.
Recent public attention on deadly use-of-force situations involving officers is one of the driving forces behind decisions to ban warrior training. But Minneapolis will not stop officers from making bad decisions in use-of-force scenarios by merely eliminating “warrior-style” training classes. That is not even putting a Band-Aid on the right wound.
The real problem with “warrior cops” and inappropriate use of force is born out of cops who have inflated ideas of what it means to be a police officer. These cops believe they are the last hope of stopping society from turning into pure anarchy. There is not one single type of officer training, weapons, or tactics to blame for the cultivation of a dangerous warrior mindset in officers. This only happens when individuals self-identify as “warriors” and adopt the belief they are some kind of Hollywood-style savior.
[Related: Avoiding Crusadism in Police Work]
We can better understand why this mindset evolves—and how to change it—through the philosophical and psychological concepts presented in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s concepts revolve around humans’ freedom of choice, specifically on understanding two terms “bad faith” and “authenticity.”
Acting in “Bad Faith” Contributes to Officers’ Misguided Mindsets
What does it mean to act in bad faith? People act in bad faith when they ignore their freedom of choice, make decisions to fulfill a role they are playing, and, thus, do not accept responsibility for their actions. The opposite of this is acting with “authenticity,” which means honestly acknowledging the situation one is in as a completely free human being and then acting accordingly.
To better understand this, Sartre used an example of a waiter. Picture a waiter in a café who appears much too committed to his job. He is way too eager to please customers, his movements are overly deliberate and precise, and his actions clearly demonstrate that he has internalized his role so much that he feels he is essentially, by definition, a waiter. The waiter ignores the fact that he is human and has chosen, of his own will, to be a waiter. This waiter is acting in bad faith by pretending to himself that his job defines him.
So many officers have this exact same mentality. Many officers feel that police work is a calling, or that the profession chose us rather than the other way around. Officers also often aspire to a higher goal or end to enforce change on people and society. These two mindsets make cops especially vulnerable to acting in bad faith.
Officers are acting in bad faith when we convince ourselves that being an officer defines some aspect of our existence. That statement is not meant to minimize the value of our profession, but it is far more valuable to act based on our active assessment of a situation than to simply fulfill a role. Officers who act authentically actively recognize the injustices of society and then dedicate themselves – despite the dangers – to finding solutions to societal problems.
But acting authentically in this way is difficult and it’s hard to make honest evaluations about the problems of society (and ourselves) with an eye to making the necessary corrections. It’s much easier to say we are born cops and others are born criminals. That is a line of thinking that leads many officers to start thinking in an “us versus them” mentality.
How the “Us vs. Them” Mindset Arises
If we view ourselves as “born” or “chosen” police officers, then we start to think we are requisite to society. In other words, we identify so strongly with our profession that we believe we are the antidote to some opposite evil that exists in society. In the case of the officer, this evil is the criminal.
The “us vs. them” mindset is not an isolated problem in policing but one that exists throughout society. Liberals blame the evil in society on conservatives, while conservatives reply in kind. Some people blame immigrants, racial groups, religions, or their department’s administration for the woes of society.
Doing any of these things means ignoring the fact that our society is poorly organized and our social problems are far more complex. Blaming our problems on small localized portions of the community is the easy way out and it’s lazy and dangerous thinking. Sartre said that those sorts of definitions of other groups are created by the group that it is looking to exclude. The “cop” is created by the criminal and the “criminal” is created by the cop.
Changing Behavior Requires Changing Mindsets
Officers must recognize when they start adopting such a dangerous and misguided mindset. This can be difficult as they are regularly exposed to many of society’s evils and see far more horrific and heartbreaking situations than the average person.
To avoid this mindset, officers must first acknowledge that they have consciously, and of their own free will, chosen this line of work. They should focus on, and be proud of, their chosen profession and work to rationally evaluate the best solutions to the difficult problems they are regularly called to solve.
Helping officers change their mindset will not come about by eliminating warrior training. Being trained to stop violent military-style attacks will do no harm if officers accept their role as a free choice and recognize humanity in the community they serve.
Instead, adjustments should be made to hiring requirements, academy curriculum, and continuing police education. Agencies also need to provide more balanced expectations about the attributes of a good officer. Simply eliminating one type of training is a lazy attempt at making these necessary changes.
About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently an investigator in a domestic violence prosecutions unit for a district attorney’s office in Colorado. Scot was previously a police officer with the Aurora Police Department, Phoenix Police Department, and a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.