Alaska's police, troopers do best as guardians, not warriors

In the wake of highly publicized officer-involved shootings, the White House formed a task force made up of police, academicians, community activists and youth leaders. Among the recommendations of their final report, issued just last month, they urged,

"Law enforcement should embrace a guardian -- rather than a warrior -- mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public."

I believe the warrior mindset in policing began with the best of intentions -- officer safety. When officers are in statistically rare but seriously dangerous incidents, they must have the mental mettle to never give up, fight on and prevail against all odds. However, in the nearly 30 years I've worked with law enforcement, I've seen this narrow concept expand and mutate until -- in many places -- it became a prevailing and venerated culture.

Those who hold to a warrior police culture argue it is necessary to combat and defeat criminals. To them, because any police-citizen contact could turn into a deadly encounter, the warrior mindset must be ever-present and vigilant. People need to do what the police tell them and there won't be any trouble. Noncompliance may justify a warrior's tactical response.

There are many within policing who have questioned the warrior mindset since well before Ferguson ignited the recent national debate. To these officers, a warrior class of police is antithetical to a democracy and our Constitution. Lt. Chad Goeden, Commander of the Alaska Department of Public Safety Training Academy, is one of these. The academy trains every Alaska State Trooper recruit and many municipal and borough police recruits before they can become certified sworn law enforcement officers.

During Lt. Goeden's nearly 20-year tenure with the Alaska State Troopers he's worked all over the state. When he became the academy commander he hung a sign over his office door:

"The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions." - Sir Robert Peel, founder of modern policing

Lt. Goeden chose that quote because he'd observed some officers had lost a sense of connection to the community. He explained, "I thought it was important to remind myself, my staff and the recruits why it is we do what we do, who we serve, and who it is we are beholden to."

Lt. Goeden rejects the notion of officers as warriors and has instructed his staff not to use the term. As he said, "If we're warriors, who are we at war with?" Lt. Goeden prefers the guardian archetype, for which he credits a leadership training called Blue Courage. When I asked him if this was just semantics, he replied without hesitation, "Words matter." And Lt. Goeden is making words, training and culture matter at the academy -- as is his staff.

He takes the sign above his door into every ethics training with every academy class. As commander, he teaches ethics to impress upon the recruits its importance.

Make no mistake -- officer safety is a high priority at the academy. Recruits are arduously trained and must master and demonstrate legal and tactical proficiency in skills related to their and the public's safety -- from verbal communication designed to enlist cooperation to defensive martial arts and driving, the use of Tasers, OC spray, ASP batons, handcuffs and firearms. But officer safety is not the top priority.

In training, Lt. Goeden instructs Alaska's troopers and officers that they may hear a refrain when they leave the Academy -- "The most important thing is you go home to your family at the end of your shift." But it's not true. If it was, they would never place themselves in harm's way -- as countless officers do every day. The most important thing -- he and his staff train -- is that they protect and serve the public, of which they are a part.

As Lt. Goeden explains to Alaska's future troopers and officers, "We are Guardians -- of our communities, our way of life, our democracy, the Constitution."

Val Van Brocklin was a state and federal prosecutor in Alaska. She now trains and writes nationally on criminal justice and law enforcement topics. She is an adjunct instructor at the Alaska Department of Public Safety Academy and lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Val Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.