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Connections: Does a ‘warrior mindset’ infect police ranks?

Whom the police protect -- and from whom -- is never as simple as the victims from the criminals. The police role has often been dictated by politics, the economy, and the media. The police are always the guardians of someone; the question is who and who decides.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

About twenty years ago, in an effort to encourage country folk to lock their doors, former Stockbridge Police Chief Richard Wilcox told an assembly, “Whatever is out there is coming here; it just takes longer.”

Then he was referring to crime, but what is out there now that could be coming here?

According to Seth Stoughton, assistant professor University of South Carolina School of Law, it is police with a “warrior mindset.” On National Public Radio, Stoughton defined “the warrior mindset” as seeing the public as the enemy. He was explaining the reason for the increasing number of civilian deaths at the hands of the police.

Labor organizer Eugene V. Debs
Labor organizer Eugene V. Debs

Stoughton concluded, “There needs to be a paradigm shift in policing away from the ‘warrior mindset’ to a guardian role.”

There have been a number of paradigmatic shifts in the philosophy of policing throughout our history. Whom the police protected — and from whom — was never as simple as the victims from the criminals. The police role has often been dictated by politics, the economy, and the media. The police are always the guardians of someone; the question is who and who decides.

In the summer of 1894 the police killed 30 strikers at the Pullman Company in Chicago. They were citizens exercising their rights but…

The media depicted the strikers as a mob of foreigners and aliens. The politicians perceived that the public opposed the strike, and the owners wanted their property protected. The police role was certainly as guardians — guardians of property, at war with the men. When police action was not enough, President Grover Cleveland ordered in the army. The strike broke, Eugene V. Debs was jailed, and the union dissolved.

It was 1919; it started slowly. Police denied permits to assemble, and owners denied the rights of arbitration and collective bargaining. When it escalated, thousands of people nationwide were clubbed by the police, dragged away, and jailed without charges. Privately employed guards and “Pinkertons” were deputized to make arrests and jail people. Those jailed were promised release if they agreed to quit the union and return to work. It was the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

New York World, October 11, 1919

The owners used the media to foment a post-WWI Red Scare. The headline read: Collective Bargaining Akin to Communism. Some reporters even suggested the strike was orchestrated from Moscow. Public opinion turned against the striking workers, and the police were ordered in. When it was over in January of 1920, the union collapsed.

The police do what they are trained to do, what they are asked to do, and they do it well. Is there increased police violence today? If so, is there some political, economic or media driven cause? Stroughton, law professor and former police officer, says no.

He says there is a law enforcement culture fueled by police academy training. First, the cadets are shown videos in which officers are beaten or killed. They are taught that hesitation or complacence can result in death – shoot first and survive. Then they are taught to be “hyper-vigilant” which means assume anyone on the street is a potential threat. Those ideas encourage a warrior mentality and negate the idea of “protect and serve.”

The culture can and should be changed, Stroughton says, but it could take twenty years. Why so long? Because the crucial first step is police getting to know the people they serve as individuals.

Well for goodness sake! How could this warrior mindset ever come here? There are only 136,000 of us in Berkshire County and we already know each other. So this could be one problem that does not come here. Unless of course we hire from the outside and bring in police who do not know us; unless of course they were trained somewhere else with materials that do not reflect conditions in our community; unless of course our politicians or media exaggerate conditions here to gain votes or audience share. Then it will come here – it will just take longer.


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