Republished from a forcescience.org email blast:
Capt. Charles (Chip) Huth of the Kansas City (MO) PD (above) posted his thoughts on how a mind-set of moral superiority in LEOs may unwittingly be damaging efforts to build community trust. A certified Force Science Analyst, Huth is well known in training circles as a dedicated advocate of what he terms “respectful policing.”
With a quarter-century in the law enforcement trenches, he’s a former team leader for his department’s Street Crimes Unit Tactical Enforcement Squad and is co-author of the book Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training. He’ll shortly be publishing a new book, tentatively titled Outward Mindset Policing. Here’s a lightly edited version of what he wrote on LinkedIn:
A few years ago, I was sitting in an auditorium with hundreds of senior military and police commanders at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, listening to a motivational talk by a well-respected national speaker. Remarking on the nobility of military and police service, he told the group, “You are simply a better class of people.”
Coming from a man I know to be intelligent and deeply passionate, the comment appeared designed to inspire, but it caused me to reflect deeply on its unstated message. I began to wonder about the possible implications of telling a group of strong, dedicated people, who swear an oath to defend the Constitution, that they are essentially better than those they serve.
What concerns me is the manner in which some officers internalize this message. There are unintended consequences of seeing ourselves as better than the people we serve. When we focus on the imagined superiority of our group—the elite, the entitled, we who are deserving of special consideration because of our superior character, ethos, and sacrifice—it can manifest as disdain for others we view as less deserving.
This mind-set invites contempt and abuses of power, the likes of which have been captured on video and played out in the national media of late, helping to fuel anti-police sentiment. Further, when protectors deem those who are protected as less worthy, it represents a direct threat to democracy.
It has become popular in police training circles to use metaphors to characterize law enforcement’s relationship with the public. Among the most popular of these is the “sheep/sheepdog” allegory. Trainers who favor this framing explain that many members of the public are like sheep that operate in constant fear of predators, while LEOs serve as the sheepdogs that protect the hapless sheep from the wolves (criminals) that stalk them.
While this contrasting might seem harmless, it actually objectifies both the police and the public they are sworn to serve in ways that undermine police effectiveness and helpfulness.
A sheepdog’s job is to ensure the integrity of a herd. When the herd gets out of line, the sheepdog drives the sheep by growling and nipping at their heels, adopting a posture characteristic of a predator. This transformation puts the sheep in a perpetual state of fear of being singled out and attacked, thus providing an extrinsic motivation for them to fall in line. Sheep are afraid of sheepdogs just as they are afraid of wolves. They don’t trust them and comply only because they are motivated by fear of consequence.
Sheep aren’t equipped to fight their antagonists, so a growling sheepdog may not invite escalated dangers among the herd. Not so with people, however. Among those being growled at are people who are capable of resisting. The sheep/sheepdog allegory completely misses how growling sheepdogs can motivate and escalate resistance.
Furthermore, characterizing people as helpless sheep creates a false sense of reality. It helps foster a “sheep” mentality that indirectly states, “If you have a problem, do nothing. Call 9-1-1 and let the professionals handle it.”
The fact is there are many people in our communities who are impressively tough and capable. Even though they do not serve as officers or soldiers, they are quite prepared to protect themselves and others. Even people who lack this capacity still possess the power to keep their eyes open for suspicious people and dangerous circumstances and report what they see to authorities. Given these capabilities, we should be doing all we can to develop partnerships with these folks, not alienate them.
We are more shepherds than sheepdogs: deeply caring and respectful of the people we serve and willing to die to protect them from evil. We make a conscious decision to sacrifice based on love, honor, and obligation, not just training, instinct, and conditioning as in the case of a sheepdog.
The hyperbolic use of the term “warrior” represents another way law enforcement culture has worked to emphasize distinctions between the public and the police. Metaphors can illuminate, but if taken overly seriously, they can also mislead, and the warrior archetype is one of the most misunderstood models in present-day society.
While noble ideals like service and sacrifice were often revered in ancient warrior cultures that are celebrated in current law enforcement training, other elements of those same cultures would be disastrous if applied today; for example, the eating of pig’s blood gruel, shame-based ritual suicide, and strategic murdering of slaves to prevent rebellion.
It is as difficult to imagine today’s police officers celebrating such things as it is to imagine ancient Spartans petitioning their labor organization to block the implementation of mandatory physical fitness standards!
Elevation of the warrior ethos as ideal without thinking more carefully about the components that we subscribe to and those that we don’t can blunt the effectiveness of warrior-focused training approaches.
For many people who promote external concepts of warriorship in law enforcement, the battles they can’t seem to win actually are internal rather than external. For example, they often are overcome by justifications for not training their bodies and expanding their minds. They fear the influence of alternative perspectives because, deep down, they question the strength of their own convictions. They create a fool’s choice in their minds between being compassionate and being tough and capable.
Yet unless you are an active member of the military, the warrior ethos is most practical when applied in the context of fighting internal battles against our individual biases, fears, prejudices, and loyalties that cloud our ability to see and act on what is right. Indeed, in some of the oldest warrior literature the “enemy” the text referred to was understood to represent these types of personal shortcomings, and the battlefield was considered to be one’s own heart.
Admittedly, the warrior ethos can be a powerful force in motivating officers to remain mentally, physically, and spiritually trained and prepared to act skillfully and courageously in challenging circumstances. But it is generally not helpful when used to characterize a police officer’s outward posture toward the public he or she serves. Historically, warrior cultures have not always functioned with their societies’ best interest in mind.
As society’s protectors we are not better than the people we serve. Our own acts of misconduct demonstrate this. And the frequent acts of police heroism don’t make us better, either; our communities are filled with heroes who don’t wear uniforms. We, the police, are part of and a reflection of our society. If law enforcement officers and organizations happen to behave better (and sometimes they don’t), it is because policing organizations are generally well led and driven by an others-centric professional ethos.
Any police officer who is at war with his or her fellow community members is at war with him- or herself. Such officers perhaps have elevated the metaphors they have been trained in above the fellow community members they are sworn to serve, and these closely held metaphors may be blinding them to the equal personhood of those with whom they interact.
In order to foster a safe and responsible society, police need to see themselves and others as they are—as people. The work of terror organizations, extremists, and mass shooters is facilitated when society is divided into marginalized and dehumanized groups.
One of the biggest challenges our society faces is carving out a legitimate place in modern law enforcement for the aspect of the warrior or sheepdog or other ethos that enables officers to rise to the challenge when they find themselves in “kill or be killed” situations.
I am not arguing that we should turn away from training that prepares officers to respond effectively to violent attacks. Rather, I am arguing that we should prepare our protectors in the capabilities needed to effectively deal with the worst of circumstances while doing so in ways that don’t set them up to respond poorly in other, non-threatening circumstances.
The mind-set that can serve officers well when overcoming deadly attacks is counter-productive when applied to the majority of law enforcement/public interactions. Training built on misleading metaphors sets officers up to provoke aggression in situations where patience and deliberate thought would be more effective.
Believing that one is prepared to deal with formidable threats can be comforting on many levels. However, comprehensive safety isn’t achieved by platitudes, overly simplistic metaphors, and aristocentric idealism. Comprehensive safety is achieved by a strong commitment to mental, spiritual, and physical preparedness that facilitates the confidence to build and leverage trusting relationships with the people who need the police the most.
We haven’t seen the last of unprovoked, violent attacks on members of the public and law enforcement, and a principal aim of policing agencies should be to recruit more and more community members to be vigilant and feel a sense of partnership with the police.
Law enforcement in a democracy is at its best with an ethos where officers see themselves as an integral part and reflection of the best nature of the society they serve, not as a morally superior caste set above that society.