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Is there any evidence concerning the warrior/guardian debate in policing?

The discussion about whether officers should be warriors or guardians exploded in an environment devoid of empirical research

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Researchers have made the first steps toward establishing an evidence base regarding the warrior/guardian debate.


Reprinted with permission from the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing

By Kyle McLean, PhD

At some point over the past 10 years, the idea that police officers should see themselves as guardians (i.e., officers valuing working with the public to reduce crime) rather than warriors (i.e., officers seeing themselves as soldiers in a life-or-death battle against crime) became lodged in the debate on police reform.

Indeed, the argument found its way into the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and training programs across the country (e.g., the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission). [1]

Academically, scholars began to advocate for the change in a number of outlets. [2-5] This debate did not go unnoticed by practitioners who began voicing opinions on the topic within online discussion boards and practitioner-related outlets. [6-11]

The problem – one that the members of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing (ASEBP) are undoubtedly all too familiar with – is that this debate exploded in an environment devoid of empirical research. Despite compelling arguments, no data was presented to suggest that an officer’s approach to policing could be altered or that these two apparently distinct approaches to policing even existed.

To address this issue, my colleagues and I constructed a survey measure that was intended to tap into the relevant orientations to policing, administered the instrument to two police departments in the United States, and subjected the data to rigorous analyses to determine if the warrior and guardian mentalities existed and whether there was any merit to the debate. The findings of our study were recently published in “Justice Quarterly” and are reviewed here.

Generating Evidence

To construct the survey measure, we examined the existing arguments on the issue.

Using the literature, we defined the warrior approach as an orientation to police work that “prioritizes crime fighting as a law enforcement officer’s primary mission.” [12].

On the other hand, we defined the guardian approach as an approach to police work that “prioritizes service over crimefighting” [3] and “emphasizes building relationships between the police and the community.” [12]

Using these definitions, we constructed nine survey items, three of which were aimed at the warrior mentality (e.g., “My primary responsibility as a police officer is to fight crime.”) and six of which were aimed at the guardian mentality (e.g., “As a police officer, it is important that I have non-enforcement contacts with the public.”).

With the measure constructed, we then needed a way to determine if the measure was related to the concepts it should be related to – an idea referred to as predictive validity. Again, we returned to the literature and determined that:

  1. The guardian approach should lead officers to value communication in an interaction with a citizen. [3,11]
  2. The warrior approach should lead officers to value physical control in an interaction with a citizen. [3,11]
  3. The warrior approach will result in officers being more likely to use force inappropriately. [4]

With these hypotheses in mind we constructed a hypothetical vignette of a police officer/citizen interaction (the scenario involved an officer responding to a suspicious persons call; see article in “Justice Quarterly” for full details) and constructed measures of communication priorities (e.g., “How important is establishing rapport with the subject?”) and control priorities (e.g., “How important is making the subject stop walking away?”). Finally, we asked officers for their attitudes regarding force misconduct (e.g., “Verbally disrespectful suspects sometimes deserve physical force.”).

The survey was administered to two police departments in different parts of the United States. Data from one police department was subjected to exploratory factor analysis – a process that makes no assumptions about the structure of the measure but generates a proposed measurement model based on the statistical properties of the data. Next, data from the other police department was subjected to confirmatory factor analysis – a process that takes a proposed measurement model (generated by the first department) and tests whether the model is supported by the new data. Finally, data from both departments was combined and used to test the predictive validity hypotheses reviewed above.

The results from the exploratory factor analysis proposed a model that was consistent with our expectations – the warrior/guardian items separated into two factors, one for warrior, one for guardian. However, the warrior and guardian factors were correlated. This suggests that while there are two distinct approaches to policing consistent with the arguments of the warrior/guardian model, officers were able to adopt both mentalities. The results from the confirmatory factor analysis replicated this finding in the second police department.

Finally, the predictive validity tests supported the hypotheses found in the literature. Higher scores on the guardian measure were related to greater prioritization of communication. Higher scores on the warrior measure were related to greater prioritization of physical control and more favorable attitudes towards force misconduct.

Reviewing the Evidence

At this point, given the mission of the ASEBP it is important to review the quality of this evidence.

The process used to test the measurement of the warrior/guardian mentalities was very rigorous. It is rare in criminology for survey measures to be collected in independent samples with the data from one sample confirming findings generated in another sample, as was done here. Additionally, the exploratory method used to generate a proposed model did not assume that the items would separate into the warrior and guardian measures – in fact, it did not assume that there would even be two measures. In other words, the exploratory method used would have generated a single measure (or factor) if there were not two distinct mentalities. Thus, the evidence that these two mentalities exist and can be assessed in a survey is fairly strong.

On the other hand, the predictive validity tests were not rigorous. In conducting these tests we merely provided preliminary support for the idea that an officer’s overall mentality is related to the way they approach individual encounters – there was absolutely no causality established.

Moving Forward

In sum, our project was able to make the first steps toward establishing an evidence-base regarding the warrior/guardian debate. Our findings demonstrated, in a rigorous manner, that these mentalities do exist AND are able to be measured in a survey. If this debate is to continue informing policing policies, such as approaches to training new recruits, further research should be done to explore whether and how the mentalities can be trained or socialized, as well as whether the mentalities impact officer behavior on the job.

This post is based on the article Police Officers as Warriors or Guardians: Empirical Reality or Intriguing Rhetoric? published in “Justice Quarterly.”


1. Kindy K. Creating guardians, calming warriors: A new style of training for police recruits emphasizes techniques to better de-escalate conflict situations. Washington Post, December 10, 2015.

2. Marenin O. Cheapening death: Danger, police street culture, and the use of deadly force. Police Quarterly, 2016, 19:461-487.

3. Stoughton S. Law enforcement’s warrior problem. Harvard Law Review Forum, 2016, 128:225-234.

4. Stoughton S. Principled policing: Warrior cops and guardian officers. Wake Forest Law Review, 2016, 51:611-676.

5. Thibodeau PH, Crow L, Flusberg SJ. The metaphor police: A case study of the role of metaphor in explanation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2017, 10(5): 375-1386.

6. Blake D. Guardian vs. warrior: The many roles of a police officer.

7. Brocklin VV. Warriors vs. guardians: A seismic shift in policing or just semantics?

8. Davis K. Warrior or guardian?

9. Smith D. Warriors or guardians? Uninformed activists who would change police officers from warrior to guardians should be careful what they wish for.

10. Cullum J. When serving meets surviving – Officer mindset matters. Community Policing Dispatch: The e-newsletter of the COPS Office, 9.

11. Rahr S, Rice SK. From warriors to guardians: Recommitting American police culture to democratic ideals. New Perspectives in Policing Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 2015.

12. McLean K, Wolfe SE, Rojek J, Alpert GP, Smith MR. Police officers as warriors or guardians: Empirical reality or intriguing rhetoric? Justice Quarterly, 2019.

About the author

Kyle McLean is an assistant professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Director of the Law Enforcement Research and Policy Institute in the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research at Florida State University. His research focuses on police-community relationships and evaluations of police programs. He is currently working on a National Institute of Justice-funded randomized-controlled trial of a social interaction training program for police officers. His research has been published in “Criminal Justice and Behavior,” “The British Journal of Criminology” and “Crime & Delinquency.