The Warrior-Cop Ethos and the Stand-Around Cops in Uvalde
In the ten weeks since the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, each new disclosure has cast the responding officers in a worse light. First, police claimed that a school resource officer engaged the shooter before he entered the building; no such thing occurred. Then came the footage of parents being restrained by men in tactical gear outside as their children were killed within. Doors that were supposedly locked turned out to have been unlocked the whole time; requested firepower was on site sooner than spokespeople recollected. But the simplest distillation of the scandal is a matter of mathematics: It took 75 minutes for some of the 376 law enforcement officers who arrived at the scene to enter the classroom and kill the shooter, who had by that time murdered nineteen children and two teachers without being properly engaged by the police.
It’s not that American officers are gun-shy, exactly. Over 1,000 people have been shot and killed by police in the United States in the past year. Police forces across the country are being militarized—Uvalde, which is a town of 15,000, did much to advertise its own SWAT team—and new recruits are increasingly being trained into a violent paradigm that requires them to habituate themselves to the act of killing until they are ready to do so at a moment’s notice. Gone are the days of officers who aspire to resemble Mayberry’s Andy Taylor, the idealized small-town policeman who strolled his beat without so much as a holstered sidearm on his hip. Instead, we live in the age of the heavily armed and armored “warrior cop,” who may avail himself of virtually any pretense to end your life with impunity.
These two bodies of information—the calamitous failure of police to use force to end a mass killing in progress on one side, the rise of the warrior cop on the other—might initially appear to conflict with one another. But as we attempt to square the rise of the warrior cop with the utter failure of the police in Uvalde, what becomes clear is that Uvalde is not an outlier. Rather, the Uvalde tragedy is perfectly consistent with the warrior-cop ethos.
It is not clear at this time whether the Uvalde police specifically undertook warrior-cop training programs or overtly embraced its ethos in other ways, but the mindset is prevalent in officer training programs, police unions, and publications for cops all around the country; the federal government even makes grants available to fund warrior-cop training workshops, as detailed in a jointly published story by Slate and the Trace about the burgeoning warrior-cop industry. Whether or not Uvalde cops attended warrior-cop training in a formal context, the ideology is in the water; there is no escaping it.
Let’s get into what the “warrior cop” phenomenon entails. I use the term here to indicate two separate but related developments: first, the increased militarization of police culture and materiel, and second, the school of “warrior” or “sheepdog” philosophies being taught in police trainings.
Radley Balko exhaustively details the militarization of police in his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop, which traces the proliferation of SWAT teams, the increased transfer of surplus military equipment from the United States military to police forces across the country, and the changes in police mentality that followed. Where officers were once commonly armed only with .38 revolvers, police departments around the country now stock their armories with assault rifles, high-caliber sniper rifles, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and even MRAPs—armored vehicles designed to withstand the blasts of IEDs and landmines. SWAT teams, once the purview of forces serving major population centers, have been adopted by departments even in small towns like Uvalde; in rural and urban settings alike, they are most often deployed to serve search or arrest warrants upon suspected drug users.
Police training has also evolved to keep pace with this growing arsenal: Philosophies that emphasize the officer’s role as a warrior or “sheepdog” are ubiquitous in police academies and workshops. The work of David Grossman exemplifies this trend. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he has been teaching “bulletproof warrior” and “killology” courses to police officers around the country for over two decades. Grossman teaches that police must develop a “will to kill” to perform their jobs well. (And when they do kill, their reward, he says, is to go home and enjoy the best sex they’ve ever had, post-killing coitus being one of the “perks that come with this job.”) Police departments often array themselves in symbols that reinforce the warrior-cop ideology: Officers decorate their equipment with the Punisher skull; they quote Bible verses about God’s righteous wrath, imagining themselves to be its instruments; and they proudly display the Thin Blue Line flag, which posits that law enforcement is the only thing standing between the law-abiding citizenry and anarchy—or worse.
And yet: Uvalde.
According to a timeline published last month by the Associated Press, the shooter arrived at Robb Elementary School at 11:28 a.m., and officers began arriving as soon as three minutes later. The shooter entered the building at 11:33; officers followed him inside at 11:35. At 11:37, the shooter shot at a few of them who had gathered outside the doors to rooms 111 and 112, where he had already fired over one hundred rounds at his victims. In response, officers retreated—and stayed retreated. Eleven minutes later, officer Ruben Ruiz attempted to enter the classroom after learning that his wife, teacher Eva Mireles, had been shot. He was detained, disarmed, and prevented from breaching the classroom by other officers who “escorted him from the scene,” in the words of Texas Department of Public Safety Director Col. Steve McCraw. Eva Mireles later died from her injuries.
Officers would not ultimately breach the classroom and confront the shooter until 12:50 p.m., approximately an hour and 15 minutes after law enforcement first entered the building. It is impossible to say how many lives could have been saved by more decisive action on the part of police. The shooter fired sporadically while the hundreds of law enforcement officers outside dithered.
This is not the first time that police have failed to respond adequately to a mass shooting. Law enforcement personnel failed to aggressively pursue mass shooters during the Columbine and Parkland shootings, and failures in intelligence and organization prolonged the Las Vegas and Orlando shootings, as well.
But most mass shootings aren’t stopped by police at all: According to the New York Times, out of a sample size of 433 “active shooter” events, fewer than half (184) were ended by police. Of those, 53 were ended by acts of the assailants after police arrived (i.e., suicide or surrender), meaning that only around 30 percent of active shooter attacks studied by the Times were ended by police using direct force against an armed attacker.
While it is not the case that police never respond quickly or well to mass shootings (see, for example the Dayton, Ohio shooting in 2019), there is a dissonance between the heroic warrior-cop persona and the realities of police intervention. Even the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety called Uvalde an “abject failure.”
There are always gaps between a persona and reality, between marketing and the truth of the thing being marketed. But this superficial inconsistency—between the warrior-cop persona and failures of police to apply appropriate force in situations that require it—masks a deeper and more troubling consistency: Failures of the type seen at Uvalde are a natural result of the warrior-cop ethos and paradigm.
In his essay “What Is It Like to Be a Man?,” Phil Christman characterizes the experience of masculinity as that of an “abstract rage to protect.” Christman’s prototypical example is the man who spends all his time worrying about how to protect his family from sudden, cinematic violence while often failing to protect them from life’s more mundane exigencies—the sort that require “holding down a hated but necessary job, cleaning the toilet,” and so forth. He demands honor and obeisance from his family out of respect for his calling to throw himself on a grenade or shoot a home intruder should the occasion arise, yet he never seems to help with the dishes. Call this, perhaps, the priority of the violent speculative.
I can think of no better definition for the warrior-cop ethos, unless it is perhaps to add the word “fearful” to Christman’s characterization. (And fear is a consistent presence in Christman’s account: In the next paragraph of his piece, he summarizes Norah Vincent’s findings after going around in drag for a year to experience male sociality firsthand: “Every social encounter between men is potentially a fistfight.”) More than anything else, the warrior-cop ethos teaches police officers to be afraid. Every traffic stop should be treated as an armed standoff because any person pulled over for a broken taillight could be packing an assault rifle and a longing for death, as a writer for one police industry website argues. Failure to exude a sufficient “command presence” can get an officer killed, argues another. The first rule of law enforcement is to “get home at the end of the shift,” and it is “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.” Consider the “I feared for my life” language that follows nearly every police shooting. For the officer who aspires to be a warrior cop, Christman’s logic of masculinity takes a heightened form: Every social encounter is potentially a shootout.
Giving himself over to this “abstract, fearful rage to protect” changes the way an officer imagines the public he is meant to serve: It is now full of “predators” and “violent offenders,” bad actors who could be waiting in ambush behind any door or window. The warrior cop’s wars are defined abstractly—he is enlisted in a fight against “crime” and “drugs”—and this gives his beat a haunted quality. The tragic eventuality is that he shoots people who pose him no threat, like Philando Castile. (It’s no coincidence that the officer who killed Castile had spent dozens of hours in one of Dave Grossman’s trainings just a few years prior.)
In my time as a public defender in rural Minnesota, I have reviewed hundreds of hours of body-cam and dash-cam footage of police interactions with the public. Though I have not witnessed police responses to mass shootings, what I have seen are countless examples of officers mistreating the people they detain and then citing their fear of those people as justification for the mistreatment. I have seen officers cite personal safety concerns as a basis for warrantless searches of person, property, and vehicles. I have seen an officer pull a hyperventilating teenage shoplifter out of her car and gain “pain compliance” over her by squeezing her fingers together—citing her “verbal hostility” as proof of this act’s necessity. (The stolen property at issue in this case was a pack of Kraft singles.) I have seen officers breach a residence without a warrant to arrest a panicking, drunk, and mentally ill man, a figure well-known to the police, who was making ludicrous claims about having landmines on his property. I have seen police officers point Tasers at confused people simply because they did not immediately comply with all officer commands; their noncompliance raised a spectral fear of concealed weapons under their clothes.
All this is not to suggest that assaults on police never happen during traffic stops. I have had clients charged with assaulting a police officer. However, in all but one of those cases, the alleged assault consisted of spitting on the officer—by statute, a felony fourth-degree assault in Minnesota. In the remaining case, the alleged assault happened only after officers broke a window to bodily haul a woman out of her car; she allegedly kicked one of the officers in the ensuing struggle. (He’s fine.)
Real assaults on police do happen, though at vanishingly small rates. (One study suggests officers are feloniously killed in routine traffic stops at a rate of 1 in every 6.5 million stops and otherwise seriously injured at a rate of 1 in 361,111.) But the warrior-cop ethos takes the real risks of police work and stretches them into grotesque disproportion; the resulting fear primes officers to kill innocent civilians.
But while the warrior-cop ethos prepares police officers to be ready to kill their fellow citizens without hesitation if they feel threatened, it fails to produce the sort of courageous, battle-ready warriors who could actually make a difference during an episode of mass violence. Both critics and supporters of police would agree that the situation in Uvalde required trained officers to confront and subdue or kill the shooter as quickly as possible. The kitted-out, assault-weapon-wielding officers who swarmed Robb Elementary may have looked the part, but they waited in the wings instead of preventing the murder of children.
Again and again in his 2013 book, Balko quotes law enforcement officers talking about how much fun it is to play with military-grade hardware. Kicking down a door during a SWAT raid is a “huge rush.” Cops get “hooked on that jolt of energy” the raid provides. They seek military equipment to “look more fearsome.” “Why serve an arrest warrant to some crack dealer with a .38? With full armor, the right shit, and training, you can kick ass and have fun,” says a military officer training SWAT teams.
The sense of high-stakes fun is crucial to the warrior-cop paradigm’s appeal to actual cops. Look at the way the “killologist” Grossman and his ilk market their wares. A video trailer advertising Grossman’s “On Combat” course is filled with wartime imagery and authority-conferring references to Grossman’s military experience. A competitor, Pro Train Inc. (tagline: “Tactical Training for the Warrior Mindset”), offers a course called “Sun Tzu and the Warrior Resiliency Mindset.” Pro Train’s bombastic trailer is full of cinematic B-roll of samurai, knights, and Spartan warriors. (While most of the clips are taken from movies like 300 and 13 Assassins, at least one appears to come from the videogame Dark Souls.)
This is juvenile stuff, to be sure—but the silliness is not incidental. In fact, it’s central to the whole project.
Time and again, the abstract, fearful rage to protect generates fantasia of silliness. Christman mocks himself for fantasizing about fighting off terrorists so that his wife can get away, noting that “terrorist attacks are not frequent in Ann Arbor.” Meanwhile, the police department in Fargo—Fargo!—has an armored truck with a rotating turret. “If terrorists ever target Fargo, N.D., the local police will be ready,” the reporters write drily.
The idea of terrorism befalling Fargo may be grandiosely silly to us, but it’s a source of real worry—and personal justification—for the police officer driving the armored truck to serve a warrant to a suspected drug user. By inoculating against irony and critical self-awareness, the warrior-cop ethos achieves a secondary effect: After generalized fear comes unquestioning, self-serious fidelity. The emperor is always arrayed in beautiful clothes, and always will be. Be careful: Criticizing the emperor is an act of verbal hostility, which can only be corrected with pain compliance. Stop resisting.
The abuses I’ve seen all point to this aspect of the warrior-cop mentality, which is the source of its appeal and its fragility both. Instead of transforming police officers into soldiers—a task that would require an emphasis on discipline and the rules of engagement, as David French has repeatedly noted—the warrior-cop ethos is, primarily, about making police officers feel like badasses. A warrior cop can imagine that he is a samurai, a knight, a Spartan, vigilantly patrolling the bounds of his demesne. Pulling someone over for a broken taillight is boring; engaging the enemy in a controlled encounter is exciting. To adherents of the warrior-cop ideology, to point out the essential frivolity of these daydreams is to attack not only the warrior-cop ethos, but the idea of law and order itself. And only a hostile threat—a soldier belonging to the opposing army in the war against crime, a person who wants to kill cops—would do something like that.
The warrior cop is a tool for fascistic social control; a danger to the very people he is supposed to protect; and, too often, a failure in the rare instance—such as Uvalde—where a real warrior might be useful. The warrior-cop ethos is a cynical program of habituation to violence and an adolescent fantasy of power. Accepting its teachings for use in police department trainings amounts to a refusal to require those with the power of life and death in their hands to grow up. And because of this refusal, some Americans will never grow up.