Principled Policing: Warrior Cops and Guardian Officers

66 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2016 Last revised: 13 Nov 2016

See all articles by Seth W. Stoughton

Seth W. Stoughton

University of South Carolina School of Law

Date Written: August 26, 2016


Policing in the United States is in crisis. Public confidence in policing is at the lowest point since the Rodney King beating. A bare majority of Americans still report confidence in the police, and an unprecedented number of people report no or very little confidence in policing. A long history of poor police/community relations in minority and low-income neighborhoods has been exacerbated by egregious acts of misconduct, some of which have been captured on video and shared on social media. Activists, politicians, and police officials themselves have called for better education and equipment, from de-escalation training to body-worn camera systems. But while training and equipment can marginally improve policing practices and public perceptions of the profession, and while both may prove to be necessary components of meaningful, long-term reform, they will not be sufficient. Law enforcement’s problems are, in large part, the result of principles that underlie policing. Resolving the crisis requires acknowledging and changing those principles.

Policing principles shape the police mission and how officers perceive their relationship to the public, which affect in turn affect officers’ decisions and actions. This Article explores perhaps the most problematic aspect of modern policing: the idealization of the “Warrior” metaphor. To officers, the Warrior represents honor, duty, and resolve, and the concept provides them with both psychological and pragmatic benefits. But although it was adopted with the best of intentions, the Warrior ideal has been corrupted and its benefits more than offset by hidden costs. The Warrior concept contributes to an adversarial approach to policing that has undermined police/community relations, frustrated effective law enforcement, needlessly endangered officers and civilians, and stymied meaningful reform.

As a profession, policing must realign its principles by emphasizing that the primary goal is protecting civilians from unnecessary indignity and harm. To resolve the friction that the Warrior metaphor has countenanced, law enforcement must adopt a procedurally just culture emphasizes communication over commands, cooperation over compliance, and legitimacy over authority. Officers must be capable of being Warriors when it is necessary, of course, but the profession and the public would be better served if officers patterned themselves on the image of the Guardian.

Keywords: police, policing, procedural justice, criminal law, criminal procedure, Warrior, cop, Warrior Cop, Guardian, community policing

Suggested Citation

Stoughton, Seth W., Principled Policing: Warrior Cops and Guardian Officers (August 26, 2016). 51 Wake Forest L. Rev. 611 (2016), Available at SSRN:

Seth W. Stoughton (Contact Author)

University of South Carolina School of Law ( email )

1525 Senate Street
Columbia, SC 29201
United States
803-777-3055 (Phone)

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