Home > Can policing effectively combine the warrior and guardian mindsets?


Can policing effectively combine the warrior and guardian mindsets?

Can policing effectively combine the warrior and guardian mindsets?

In 1963, the Los Angeles Police Department introduced a motto that would resonate with people everywhere, causing many agencies to adopt some variation of the phrase: to protect and to serve. For those who believe that a police officer’s first duty is to well-being of the civilians in her or his community, the appeal of this phrase is clear: it shows where the police force’s loyalties ought to lie.

But not every police officer has the same philosophy about the role they play in a community; members of the same department can have diametrically opposing views. There’s a popular set of phrases to describe this paradigm: warrior vs. guardian mindsets.

How do a guardian and warrior mentality differ with regard to policing?

The warrior mentality put emphasis on fighting crime and officer safety. Law enforcement officers with this mentality often see police forces in military terms: they are soldiers fighting an enemy force, namely crime, as they try to uphold the law.

The guardian mentality puts emphasis on protecting community members. Law enforcement officers with this mentality emphasize creating and strengthening relationships with the people in their community, rather than relying on force or enforcement tactics.

What creates a guardian mentality?

Police recruits will come to the profession with certain opinions and mindsets already in place. However, law enforcement agencies and training officers can have a huge effect on these recruits.

Police agencies can influence officers to adopt a guardian mindset with the language that they use: talk of “defending others” or “protecting the community” is better than language like “fighting crime.” Leaders who treat officers with respect and create a supportive police culture is also key: the US Department of Justice’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing states that “Officers who feel respected by their organizations are more likely to bring this respect into their interactions with the people they serve.”

Police training also plays a huge key. In most agencies, significantly more time is spent on training about force, weapons, and defense than on training about communication and de-escalation; to create more officers with a guardian mindset, perhaps more emphasis on training in these topics is needed. 

What creates a warrior mentality?

As with the guardian mindset, the attitudes of law enforcement agencies can have a massive effect on whether an officer develops a warrior mentality. If a new recruit is taught in training that hesitation can be fatal, if she or he constantly hears from other members of the department to constantly fear the very people the police are to protect, it is more likely that she or he will develop a warrior mindset and resort to excessive force in a stressful moment.

There’s also evidence that points at a connection between a warrior mindset and militarization of police forces. A 2017 study by Delehanty, Mewhirter, Welch and Wilks found that when law enforcement agencies give their officers military equipment, those officers are more likely to use deadly force on the public.  

What is the danger of a warrior mentality?

Though it’s certainly important for police officers to think about their own safety, the warrior mentality poses a real danger to the very community that the police exist to protect. If a police officer thinks of every encounter as a life or death situation and feels that he or she must do whatever is necessary to survive, it may motivate him or her to use excessive force, as has been seen in far too many incidents where police officers have shot citizens who were not a danger to them and who, in some cases, were not even armed. And research has shown that this warrior mentality can lead to police officers abusing their power and damaging the relationship between the police force and the community.

Can someone be both?

There has been some criticism of the warrior/guardian model, which includes the idea that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible for one police officer to hold attitudes that are tied to both guardian and warrior mindsets.

In fact, it can be very helpful to acknowledge that officers don’t necessarily fall into black and white categories, so as not to force an officer whose stance here is moderate into falling into extremes.

How do guardian and warrior mindsets affect police work?

There have been several related movements in recent decades to encourage law enforcement officers to embrace more guardian-oriented policing. We’re going to use, as our example for this section, one called procedural justice.

What is procedural justice?

Procedural justice is a very simple idea: procedures should be just. When it’s applied to police work and upholding the law, it means that police officers should interact with the public in a fair way: listening to both sides’ stories, being transparent about decisions, showing concern, and being respectful. It’s related to the idea of community policing, as both are policing tactics that build the community’s trust in the police department; both of these ideas may be part of pushes for police reform.

This is a useful idea to explore here, because where someone falls on the warrior/guardian spectrum tends to very based on which mindset the person holds.

How does mindset affect attitudes about procedural justice?

A set of studies performed between 2012 and 2015 by the National Police Research Platform found that police officers with a guardian mentality are the mostly likely—nearly 90% of respondents agreed—to support the idea of procedural justice: 89.5% of guardian-types stated that they support it, while only 66.4% of warrior-types support it. 80.7% of those consider themselves to have both guardian and warrior tendencies support procedural justice.

5.5% of warriors oppose procedural justice, compared to 0.6% of guardians and 1.8% of those who are both. Though the majority of police officers support procedural justice, there’s a clear tendency among warriors to oppose it more than others.

Can police officers with the warrior mindset embrace guardian-style policing techniques?

Completely changing the mindset of one of the warrior cop could be difficult; these attitudes can be based on previous experiences, their training, and their personal opinions. Until that change occurs, however, it’s possible to convince police officers to support guardian-style policing tactics—community policing and procedural justice, for instance—through reframing them.

Simply focus less on the morality behind this sort of policy—important though the morality is—and more on the ways that these policing strategies can be beneficial for officers who use them. Talk about how community policing efforts can cause the public to have more positive interactions with the police department, making the police force’s job easier to do. If the police are seen as fair, respectful, and out to protect rather than to fight, the public is more likely to participate in investigations and prime preventions programs, to come forward to report crimes or share information, and to comply with officer instructions. And any police officer should see the advantages in that.

Does a guardian mindset mean never using force?

A police officer who has a warrior mindset may be uncomfortable with changes to more community-oriented policing, and that’s understandable. As we said earlier, the police academy and training officers often drill into police recruits that they must always be on their guard and that a situation can turn deadly faster than a person can properly react. And it’s true that police work is inherently dangerous; there are times when police officers will find themselves in life-threatening situations.

So there are times when even guardians must use the skills of a warrior. Sue Rahr, Executive Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said, “[A guardian mindset] doesn’t mean we are building a new generation of wimpy cops. Our trainees learn the best strategies for defending themselves and when necessary, using force effectively and decisively. We reinforce that guardians must possess the skills of warriors and not hesitate to use them when necessary.”

When is force necessary?

The important point to pull out of Rahr’s statement is “when necessary.” If the police are here to protect and serve, then police violence should only be used when it is necessary to protect and serve the community, and it should be a last resort, not a first. Or, as the famous 9 Peelian Principles of ethical policing puts it, “To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.”

Law enforcement officer training should teach that physical force and violence should be resorted to only when absolutely necessary, and only enough physical force should be used as is needed to achieve an objective. That is how a police officer can balance a guardian mindset with the occasional need for warrior skills.


Both guardian and warrior mindsets will exist in every police department. The important thing for police departments to do is to create an environment where guardian mindsets are fostered and encouraged, and to find ways to encourage police officers with warrior mindsets to see the advantages of intelligence-led, community-oriented policing strategies.

After all, the police exist to serve the public: to keep it safe by maintaining order. When police forces keep this fact in mind, they will find it easier to adopt a guardian mentality, which leads to great trust and cooperation between police officers and the public they are sworn to protect.

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