Neither warrior nor guardian: Why we need a hybrid officer

With the current spotlight on police reform, we need to be first to the table to discuss a new way forward


By John Harrelson

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

I don’t think anyone would argue that the guy who said that wasn’t pretty smart. It was Albert Einstein. So, why are we falling into that trap in modern policing?

Which approach should modern police forces employ? (Photo/Getty Images)
Which approach should modern police forces employ? (Photo/Getty Images)

Bring up the warrior and guardian philosophies in most briefing rooms, I guarantee one will grab attention, and the other will garner eye rolls. Any guesses as to which is which?

The Warrior Philosophy

I’ll be the first to admit that the warrior philosophy just sounds sexy. It stirs up visions of police officers as modern-day Spartans holding the line at Thermopylae. The paramilitary structure of most police agencies reinforces this image even further.

Let me be clear, the warrior philosophy has a necessary and useful place in modern policing. Without question, in a life or death situation, a warrior mindset is invaluable. However to make it the singular philosophy of your approach to policing is a mistake. It evokes images of the saying “If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” From a statistical standpoint, tactical situations account for only a small fraction of a police officer’s day or career for that matter. So what about the Guardian approach?

The Guardian Philosophy

The guardian philosophy focuses primarily on social services aspects of policing. This includes developing programs and fostering opportunities for police to interact and intervene before a situation reaches a point where a tactical response would be necessary.

Further, it encourages positive contacts not associated with any kind of formal law enforcement response. For instance, contacting a homeless person just to chat and establish a positive relationship before you are ever called to address a situation involving them.

Walk and talks in neighborhoods are other effective strategies. The patrol staff assigned to an area gets out of their cars and walks through a given neighborhood, not with an eye toward enforcement or detection, but with the sole intent of fostering opportunities for conversations and informal engagement.

A Hybrid Approach

So which approach should modern police forces employ? The answer is both, with an increased emphasis on the guardian approach in police training and officer development.

Most police departments focus an inordinate amount of training time on firearms, defensive tactics and legal issues, which is understandable because these are high-liability areas. Yet, what message does it send to our officers when we spend hours on these topics but only a fraction of time on de-escalation, negotiation skills, or developing community relations?

Want the good news? We can fix it. We should fix it. If we as a law enforcement profession dig in our heels, change will come anyway. And it won’t necessarily be productive change. How do we create this hybrid approach? What should our action points be?

A Plan of Action

Here are some “guardian” training goals that could help create a “hybrid” officer:

  • Enhance training hours dedicated to soft skills such as:
    • Active listening
    • De-escalation
    • Identifying and triaging mental health or sensory-driven issues
  • Enhance opportunities for community engagement for officers such as:
    • Townhall meetings
    • Community programs such as Shop with a Cop, Coffee with a Cop, school reading programs, walks and talks through neighborhoods, Special Olympics and Touch a Truck Events.
  • Develop strategic partnerships with:
    • Your state’s mental health agency
    • The Department of Social Services
    • Non-profit service providers such as shelters, soup kitchens and addiction counseling.

How Do We Afford More Training?

I can hear the next question before you ask it: “I would love to train my officers more, but how do I pay for it?” The short answer is to get creative. Software that enables agency-generated training online can be helpful. Roll call training can be a stop-gap.

Consider roll call training. Let’s do some rough math. Say you have your training staff break down some of the soft skills into 5-minute training blocks delivered as an online video or even a PowerPoint at the beginning of a shift. Your patrol division works 12-hour shifts roughly 14 times a month. That’s 1 hour and 10 minutes of training time a month without incurring any overtime. That’s 14 hours of extra training time if you do it every month for a year.

Here’s an example of what this might look like when reviewing the topic of active listening skills.

Goal: Review the seven component skills of active listening:

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Format: Create seven brief lessons that would be covered each shift. For example, paraphrasing would be one lesson:

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Follow up: Create a short quiz to confirm comprehension:

1. Paraphrasing as it relates to active listening can be defined as:

a. Providing someone instructions politely

b. Summarizing what someone has told you back to them in your own words

c. Summarizing what led to you responding

d. Explaining the law in simple terms

2. Paraphrasing as it relates to Active Listening demonstrates

a. Sympathy

b. Authority

c. Intelligence

d. Empathy

3. Paraphrasing can’t help you gain additional information.

a. True

b. False

In addition to not taking up much time during roll call, the brevity of these segments allows for the information to be more easily digested and mastered.

Conclusion

None of the strategies I’ve mentioned are large leaps by themselves. But small changes add up to big things.

We as a profession, and leaders in this field, need to be first to the table to discuss a new way forward. Why settle for being just a warrior or just a guardian? Be more. Be both.  


About the author

John Harrelson is a 22-year veteran of the Horry County Police Department in SC. He holds an associate degree in Criminal Justice, a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Management. John is also a graduate of the 277th Session of the FBI National Academy. He has had the opportunity throughout his career to spend over a decade working in his department’s Special Operations Section serving in leadership roles over the Crisis Negotiation Team, SWAT and other specialized teams. He currently serves as the Support Services Division Captain after a three-year tour as the Criminal Investigations Division Captain.  

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