The ‘Warrior Mindset’ of Cops Is One of the Biggest Obstacles to Police Reform

Graphics via Desirée Tapia for COURIER

By Keya Vakil

June 16, 2020

“Fear is motivating a lot of excessive force because you just have a lot of officers out there who don’t know how to handle themselves properly” in situations that require the use of defensive tactics.

This is part three of a series examining some of the biggest obstacles to police reform. Read the full series here.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of police violence.

For decades, many Americans have viewed police officers as the unequivocal “good guys,” and police officers have in turn internalized that perception. They have embraced the mantra of the “thin blue line,” which cops use to assert that they are the only thing that prevents society from descending into violent chaos.

Over the past three weeks, however, the nation’s perception of police officers has changed dramatically, with the majority of Americans now seeing incidents of police brutality for what they are. Since the protests following George Floyd’s killing began on May 26, more than 400 videos have been recorded documenting police misconduct and unnecessary violence against protesters, according to a database compiled by T. Greg Doucette, a North Carolina criminal defense attorney.

Many of the videos are graphic and disturbing to watch and show police attacking defenseless, nonviolent demonstrators. One of the most-watched videos was captured in Buffalo, New York on June 4 and showed two police officers shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, causing him to split his head open and bleed out onto the sidewalk. 

The man, Martin Gugino, was protesting the police killing of Floyd and posed no threat to police officers Aaron Torgalski, 39, and Robert McCabe, 32, who were surrounded by dozens of other officers. They shoved him anyway. In the furor that has followed, Torgalski and McCabe were suspended without pay and have been charged with felony assault, which drew its own backlash from their colleagues.

The president of the local police officers’ union, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, told The Buffalo News that the city’s punishment led all 57 officers on the Emergency Response Team to quit the unit. Buffalo PD officers also showed up at Torgalski and McCabe’s arraignment, where they wore T-shirts that said “BPD Strong” and cheered them on as they left the courthouse. 

Buffalo wasn’t the only city where this culture was on display last week. About 380 miles southeast, Philadelphia Police Department officers expressed similar solidarity as Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr. left the local police union office to surrender himself to authorities on aggravated assault charges after he struck a protester with a baton a week earlier. The victim, a student at nearby Temple University, suffered a large head wound that required treatment in a hospital, including approximately 10 staples and 10 sutures.

This instinct among police officers to support their colleagues no matter what highlights one of the most glaring obstacles to successfully reforming police departments and ending police brutality: The us-vs-them culture of policing in America.

Officers frequently justify this culture by saying that ordinary Americans have no idea what it’s like to be a cop and see what cops see. And they’re not wrong. Under the best of circumstances, policing is a difficult job. It can lead to a whole host of medical, emotional, and psychological issues and police officers find themselves in dangerous and morally dubious positions

Faced with these challenges, police officers have adopted a “warrior mindset” that serves to mask their fear, according to Seth Stoughton, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer. 

“They are taught that they live in an intensely hostile world. A world that is, quite literally, gunning for them,” Stoughton wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 2016. “As early as the first day of the police academy, the dangers officers face are depicted in graphic and heart-wrenching recordings that capture a fallen officer’s last moments. Death, they are told, is constantly a single, small misstep away.”

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This instills fear in officers who respond by being hypervigilant and treating every individual they interact with as an armed threat, and every situation as “a deadly force encounter in the making,” Stoughton said. 

Ed Maguire, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, agrees that fear plays a driving role in instances of police violence.

“We don’t talk enough about fear and its driving force in terms of excessive use of force, but we have human beings out there who are really concerned about being able to go home safely at the end of the day and they’re scared about whether they’re going to be injured or killed,” Maguire said. “Fear is motivating a lot of excessive force because you just have a lot of officers out there who don’t know how to handle themselves properly” in situations that require the use of defensive tactics. 

In some departments, this “warrior mindset” is further fueled by “warrior training” courses in which private trainers teach “killology” and push the notion that if officers aren’t willing to “snuff out a life” then they should “consider another line of work.” 

The ‘Warrior Mindset’ of Cops Is One of the Biggest Obstacles to Police Reform
Police officers deploy to disperse protesters gathered for George Floyd in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

This mindset and the fear that accompanies it is amplified when police officers interact with Black people. While many police leaders deny officers are racist or have implicit bias—unconscious negative attitudes—toward Black people, studies have shown that officers tend to view Black civilians as threats or associate them with violence and crime. The dynamic isn’t specific to law enforcement officials. Research shows that implicit bias exists in virtually everyone, regardless of their background. 

But for police officers, who are armed and ready to “snuff out a life” at a moment’s notice, that bias can become dangerous, if not fatal. A 2015 study of officer-involved shootings found that police officers in Philadelphia were more likely to perceive unarmed Black men as a threat than unarmed individuals of other races. In another 2015 analysis, Cody T. Ross, then a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Davis, found there is “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans.” The probability of being Black, unarmed and shot by police is about 3.5 times the probability of being white, unarmed and shot by police, he found.

The probability of being Black, unarmed and shot by police is about 3.5 times the probability of being white, unarmed and shot by police.

Research also shows police in the United States are killing citizens at astronomically high rates compared to law enforcement in other countries. American police officers are more than 25 times as likely to kill civilians as German officers and 67 times more likely to kill people than officers in England and Wales, according to the Prison Policy Project, which analyzed data from 2018 and 2019. 

The discrepancy has existed for decades. American police officers killed 59 people in the first 24 days of 2014. In England and Wales, there were only 55 fatal police shootings in total in the 24 years between 1990 and 2014, according to The Guardian. The U.S. was between five and six times larger during those years, but that alone doesn’t account for the disparity, which is also attributable to America’s more punitive criminal justice system, looser policies on use of force for police, and the nation’s preponderance of guns.

Even though the total number of police killings in European countries is far less, it’s worth noting that Black people and other people of color are still more likely to be targeted and abused by police in those countries. They’re also more likely to die in police custody than their white peers. An independent review of deaths in police custody in England and Wales between 1989 and 2009 found that “a disproportionate number of people” from Black people “died following the use of force.”

Good Cops, Bad Apples

Many police chiefs, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, have been hired in recent years with mandates to reform police departments across the country, but they’ve struggled to change the entrenched culture of departments, which have been described as toxic, corrupt, and resistant to accountability.

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, faced 18 misconduct complaints during his nearly two decades with the force. None of them hurt his career. His experience is not an anomaly. Minneapolis residents have filed more than 2,600 complaints against the police department since 2012, but only 12 officers have been disciplined, and the most serious penalty was a 40-hour suspension.

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Tou Thao, one of the three other officers fired for not intervening as Chauvin suffocated Floyd, faced six complaints of his own and was the subject of a lawsuit claiming he punched, kicked, and kneed a Black man in 2014, breaking his teeth. 

“What I learned from that case and several others I have handled against the department is that some of the officers think they don’t have to abide by their own training and rules when dealing with the public,” Patrick R. Burns, one of the lawyers who represented Tao’s victim, told the New York Times.

Maguire said that Floyd’s killing highlighted the failure of police officers like Tao to intervene. 

“The real issue that got highlighted with this incident was that the officers around that one officer failed to intervene on behalf of the citizen,” he said. “What we’re really seeing here is a deep cultural barrier to intervening with your fellow officers when you think they’re doing something wrong.” 

Maguire said there is a need to create a new generation of police officers who more closely adhere to a professional code of conduct “in which that kind of behavior is not tolerated.”

But that may be easier said than done. Intervening has its own consequences, as the Washington Post highlighted recently. When former Buffalo police officer Cariol Horne stopped a white colleague from choking a handcuffed Black man in 2006, she wasn’t rewarded for her intervention. Instead, Horne was fired. Three years later, that same white officer bashed the heads of four handcuffed Black teenagers against a police car. 

In other departments, the cultural problems go even further. Police officers in Mount Vernon, New York, were caught on tape by a whistleblower cop admitting they witnessed or took part in framing suspects, beating residents, and collaborating with drug dealers. The tapes, which were first reported on by Gothamist/WNYC, were recorded beginning in 2017 by Murashea Bovell, a 12-year veteran of the department who had previously reported his peers’ misconduct and corruption in 2014 and 2015 via confidential complaints and a lawsuit against the city. Nothing changed, so Bovell began recording his conversations.

In other cases, officers have even used their power to take advantage of defenseless women and commit heinous acts of sexual violence. New York City resident Anna Chambers claimed that she was raped by NYPD detectives Eddie Martins and Richard Hall in the back of a police van in 2017, after being arrested for marijuana possession. The case, which was documented extensively by BuzzFeed News, made national news. Surveillance video showed the officers dropped Chambers off on the side of the road after their encounter and a rape kit found semen matching the DNA of detectives Martins and Hall. Both officers resigned from the force and were charged with 43 crimes, including rape and kdinapping, but the rape charges were dropped in 2019.

Collectively, these instances of brutality undermine police officers’ go-to defense when misconduct is exposed: that it’s a few bad apples and not a systemic, cultural issue. 

“You cannot complain about a few bad apples when you grow the trees,” said Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, an associate director at BLD PWR, a nonprofit that seeks to fight systemic oppression. “We have created a system that has repeatedly told police officers that they will be protected in these situations, that they can get away with this behavior, and when you tell people that it is allowed, you cannot then be shocked that people will then stoop to this level of behavior.”

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Josie Duffy Rice, an attorney focused on criminal justice and president of The Appeal, also made clear in a recent Twitter thread that it’s not about “good” cops or “bad cops” but rather the larger system of policing.

A Not-So-Simple Culture Shift

So what would real, substantive reforms to police culture look like? Corey Pegues, a former New York Police Department commander, recently laid out his case in Politico, arguing that there were three things needed to overhaul police culture: “First, cops who commit crimes against the community should be held personally liable; no more hiding behind the city or county to foot the lawsuit bill. Second, those same cops should be subject to perp walks. And finally, there needs to be serious federal legislation targeted both at accountability and at fixing or breaking up police culture as we currently know it.”

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses and city halls across the country finally appear to be taking police reforms seriously, but they have thus far stopped short of promoting Pegues’ suggestions. Instead, some have pointed to the “Camden model” of reforming department culture as a path forward.

The city of Camden, New Jersey, gutted its police force in 2013 and created a new county-level police department focused on “community policing.” Since then, the city has seen its violent crime rate drop, and has in recent days, received significant media attention for its efforts. But the city is also now under near-constant police surveillance and has more officers than ever before, and some residents believe the narrative depicting success has been oversimplified

The ‘Warrior Mindset’ of Cops Is One of the Biggest Obstacles to Police Reform
In this April 22, 2014, file photo, then Chief Scott Thomson watches one of the live video monitors in the command center of the Camden County Metro police in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Some experts, including anti-racist writer Tim Wise, argue that reforming culture may not be as simple as passing legislation or rebooting departments under a new name, with a slightly different approach. They instead argue that true, effective reforms will only be possible if and when policing culture is gutted from the inside out and policing is reimagined entirely. 

“If America is to live, policing as we know it must die,” Wise wrote in a recent Medium post. “The warrior mindset — which many departments openly encourage and even send officers to trainings to learn better — must be stamped out. So too must be the inward protectionism which encourages officers to place loyalty to the blue brotherhood (and sisterhood) above all else.”

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If that doesn’t happen, if the nation doesn’t “allow the scaffolding of police culture as we know it to crash and burn,” then the entire United States will, according to Wise. The stakes are clear to him: “Police culture, as it exists, must be destroyed.”


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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