When Police Are Guardians, Not Warriors

Cops need to be more than law enforcers. They need to be equipped to deal with the social problems of the communities they serve.
December 15, 2015
Police officers pick up -- but do not arrest -- a 12-year-old boy for aggressive behavior toward his family. Instead, they bring him to the hospital for a mental health examination. (David Kidd)
By Samuel Johnson Jr.  |  Contributor
Senior managing director for Mangfold Group LLC and a former Baltimore police officer

Many law-enforcement leaders are looking for innovative approaches to creating the next wave of policing reforms after a year that has been filled with civil unrest due in large part to the deaths of African-Americans in encounters with police. So while some are putting together plans that outline preventive or proactive approaches to crime, others are looking at using the latest technology to pinpoint the next incident. But many have expressed a renewed emphasis in transitioning to a more community-oriented policing approach that would change the current philosophy of policing from "warriors" to "guardians."

Historically under the warrior mentality, law-enforcement practices called for a heavy dose of enforcement and punishment to deter crime. But as many have seen, the war on drugs and other failed crime-control models have come up short. As former federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey put it in the context of drug enforcement, "We can't incarcerate our way out of the problem." Treatment programs for drug offenders, he argued, "would be more effective and would save a great deal of money."

A greater reliance on social services such as drug treatment would be a hallmark of a guardian philosophy of policing. But a transition in philosophy calls for a transition in practice. So what would policing look like under a new guardian model? In essence, police would need to become the liaisons between everyday people and social and health services, not solely the gatekeepers to America's jails.

Many traditionalists will argue that it is not the job of the police to be social workers. "There are social workers in the city. There are other agencies that provide jobs and other services," former Baltimore police commissioner Edward T. Norris said when he was appointed. "We're the police."

But as every street cop knows, in the real world police do serve as social workers. More than 90 percent of police calls for service require the resolution of some social problem, and in most cases responders serve as the intake officer with respect to diagnosing the problem and directing residents toward the relevant resources.

The failure of most police organizations is that they have equipped their personnel with the capacity and skills only to enforce laws and not the ones they need to deal with social problems. Going forward, police organizations that see themselves as guardians must provide officers with this education and training. When officers can demonstrate the ability to solve problems and not just make arrests, this will resonate with communities more than anything else.

Municipalities big and small are equipped with agencies and resources to deal with many of the social problems faced by their residents. But many of those resources are underutilized because many citizens don't know they exist. In many cases, even government workers are unaware of them. While police will not be able to resolve every social problem, they should have relationships with other local-government agencies and non-government organizations to be able to connect people with the resources that they need to receive appropriate services. Through a shift in practice to a guardian approach, police will be able to start repairing broken relationships with the communities they serve.