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In day to day community policing, use of force should be the last resort. Police interactions with the public don’t often turn violent—the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that police use physical force in about 1.5 percent of encounters with the public. But in the last few years, several highly publicized incidents have shown how things can go wrong when an officer resorts to violence as the first reaction to a tense situation.

Constitutional policing involves more than just making sure threats are neutralized, and officers return home safely at the end of each shift. Use of force may work in the short-term, but in the long-term, trusting relationships between the police and the public keep officers safer and make law enforcement more effective. Teaching officers to view themselves as guardians instead of warriors can help build trust between officers and civilians. Here are a few ways police departments can teach officers to adopt the guardian mindset:

Encourage officers to build relationships in the community

Even while they’re on shift, officers should be having conversations with civilians that don’t involve searches, questioning, arrests, traffic stops, or other law enforcement activities. Community members are more willing to cooperate with officers they already know and trust. And if officers view themselves as guardians and have built relationships in the community, they will naturally be more respectful and considerate when they have to stop someone.

Train officers in communication, conflict resolution and de-escalation

A recent study by the Police Executive Research Forum found that law agencies spend an average of 131 hours training recruits on firearms, defensive tactics and use of force scenarios. However, recruits only spend around 26 hours learning communication skills, de-escalation and crisis intervention.

Defensive tactics are certainly essential, but police forces should also train officers in practical ways to defuse conflict without resorting to force. This should include hands-on, scenario-based training so officers will feel confident in their ability to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation.

Treat officers with respect and dignity inside your organization

As the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing points out, “Officers who feel respected by their organizations are more likely to bring this respect into their interactions with the people they serve.”

The police academy is not boot camp. Rather than using scare tactics and intimidation to keep officers in line, commanders should emphasize respect and teamwork. They should talk about the benefits of policing as much or more than they talk about the dangers. Departments can implement programs like Blue Courage to promote responsibility and inclusive leadership.

Law enforcement is inherently dangerous, and police officers must be able to respond swiftly to threats. But that response doesn’t necessarily have to involve using force. Officers will be safer and more effective if they adopt the guardian mindset, viewing themselves as law enforcers, but also as peacekeepers.

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