There are features of modern life that make our lives safer, more enjoyable and more productive that it’s easy to assume have always existed but in fact have only been around for a relatively short time. The ability to “call the police” when the need arises is one example. The first full-time, professional police force was not established until the nineteenth century, and scholars and law enforcement officials continue to differ about the proper role of police.
Perhaps the most common civilian view is that the police have always been expected to function as a guardian, called on “to protect and to serve.” The original ideal of Robert Peel—British Prime Minister in the 1840s and the father of British policing—acknowledged that, “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.”
But rising urban crime rates in the United States in the 1980s, the crack epidemic and the federal government’s war on drugs caused that philosophy to morph, according to Criminal Justice professors Sue Rahr and Stephen K. Rice, “toward a culture and mindset more like warriors at war with the people we are sworn to protect and serve.”
This change is reflected in the emphases in the training of recruits. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, training at the nation’s police academies typically spends the most time on use-of-force training—roughly 168 hours—and the least on de-escalation and conflict mediation—about nine hours.
Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer and expert in police training at the University of South Carolina School of Law, says that by internally cultivating and promoting the mindset of a warrior whose primary goal is self-protection, modern police often undermine their own efforts. “Though adopted with the best of intentions,” Stoughton said, “the warrior concept has created substantial obstacles to improving police/community relations.”
Rahr, a former sheriff, believes that training officers to communicate properly and stay calm can defuse most situations. She implemented training at the Washington state police academy designed to create guardians of the community, not warriors on a battlefield. “The changes I’ve made,” Rahr said, “really get us back to what policing was originally intended to be.”