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What’s in a name: Is ‘law enforcement’ a bad term?

If we see ourselves as protectors we can start referring to ourselves as such and maintain the motivation we entered this profession with

Greetings, Ethical Warriors! In our last column we asked if police officers were warriors. We defined a warrior as “a protector of self and others, all others, including the enemy if possible; killing only when necessary and justified to protect life.”

This last piece — killing to protect life — differentiates us from the other protector professions who do not have the taking of life in their job description.

That column — What is a warrior — generated quite a bit of feedback and an interesting discussion. Most agreed that the term “Ethical Warrior” does indeed apply to law enforcement officers, although several commented that they didn’t care what they were called, they just wanted to do the job. We are fine with both views — the term “Ethical Warrior” is only the name of a column, after all.

Words Carry Meanings
Since we are talking about names, however, please think about the term “law enforcement officer.”

Do you like it? Do you think it is an appropriate and accurate description of what we do? You might ask, “Who cares?” But as amateur warrior philosophers, we know that words do mean something.

So what does the term “law enforcement officer” denote? It denotes a person who enforces laws, right? Sure, we do that, but is that who we are?

When you were a youngster and someone asked you if you knew what you wanted to do when you grew up, did you answer, “Yeah, I want to enforce laws!”?

When you graduated from the academy and put on that badge and gun, did you say to yourself, “OK, now let me get out there and enforce laws!”?

We suspect that, even if you didn’t have the words for it, you envisioned yourself as a protector of people not an enforcer of laws.

So is “law enforcement” really the best way to describe our work?

What About Peace Officer?
The term law enforcement encompasses two major concepts, law and force. As we’ve discussed in this column before, the use of force — even lawful force — can have profound psychological consequences for the officer.

One of the temptations is to start viewing everyone as a potential aggressor. This may seem like a prudent and tactically sound approach. If we assess everyone’s potential danger to us, we’ll be ready for any confrontation. The innocent people will never know the difference, and nobody gets hurt.

What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that treating everyone as a potential threat is not what we signed up to do. The classic police motto is, “to protect and serve.”

It is difficult to view everyone as a potential aggressor and still convey a genuine sense of concern to the people we are sworn to protect and serve. The officer can eventually begin to feel isolated and disconnected from the community. It’s easy to imagine this becoming a self-reinforcing negative cycle. The result is a community who doesn’t trust us, and a miserable, “burnt out” existence for us.

We are not suggesting law enforcement is a negative term. We are suggesting that officers should continually take the time to examine their attitude toward the work and compare it to their original motivation and to the broader concept of a warrior and protector.

If we see ourselves as protectors — or even as Ethical Warriors — we can start referring to ourselves as such and maintain the motivation we entered this profession with.

Our old friend, the late George Thompson, liked to use the term “Peace Officer.”

What do you think?

Two last things: the authors want to wish all of our readers a safe and happy holiday season. Merry Christmas. Second, we would like to thank RGI’s Vice President of Communication, Margarita Tapia, for her editorial assistance. If our articles read better than you might expect from an old Marine and an old cop, you can thank her — she edits everything we write. You are the best, MT!

Jack E. Hoban is president of Resolution Group International, subject matter expert for Combatives and Warrior Ethics for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, and trains police officers in de-escalation skills.

Bruce J. Gourlie is a former U.S. Army infantry officer, a retired FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge for Intelligence and currently the director of security in a large healthcare system.

Correspondence can be sent to both authors by emailing Hoban & Gourlie.