GREELEY, Colo. – As police frequently face accusations of responding to calls with excessive force, illegal procedures and military weapons and tactics, one top cop with more than 45 years of law enforcement experience is taking action against the “warrior cop” mentality.
“This isn’t Iraq, this isn’t Afghanistan. I don’t think you want to indoctrinate your officers with the warrior mentality to the extent that if you’re a warrior then you have got to have a war,” Greeley, Colorado, Police Chief Jerry Garner said.
Garner’s department is not a typical small-town America operation. A 2008 situation report by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center showed Greeley is one of many American cities where the presence of Mexican drug cartels has been documented.
In 2010, Weld County Deputy Sam Brownlee was killed in Greeley after a high-speed pursuit in which the suspect grabbed the officer’s gun.
Despite events such as these, Garner believes the warrior-cop mentality isn’t necessary. He told WND he focuses his officer training on avoiding the use of deadly force when possible.
“There’s an old adage in sports that says you play as you practice,” Garner said. “People need to understand that if an officer is trained right, when they get in an armed confrontation many times they almost go on autopilot.”
Garner said ultimately the solution is to have the right level of ongoing training for officers so that knowing when to use deadly force becomes second nature.
“We had a situation in the last couple of weeks where we talked with an officer after an incident, and he told us everything he learned in his training just kicked in almost instinctively. Because of that you want that training to be right in the first place,” he said.
Garner said a key to avoiding the use of deadly force is teaching officers through simulated scenarios that using their firearm is not the only option when faced with a threat.
“While you want to train your people to be safe, you also want to train them to recognize that there could be another option besides the use of lethal force,” Garner said. “I’ve been very pleased as police chief over some of the things I’ve seen our people do over the last year to avoid the use of lethal force even in cases where ethically, legally and across the spectrum it would’ve been justified.
“Instead, they went the extra step in order to save a life even in some cases where they did so at considerable risk to themselves.”
In a recent column in the Greeley Tribune, Garner provided instances of his officers taking steps to avoid violence.
- One night, shortly after midnight, a Greeley officer broke up a fight outside a local bar. One of the combatants told the officer he had a gun, reached into his pants and then ran. He was arrested without incident.
- Officers another time encountered a man on a first aid call. When told to show his hands, he produced a knife and advanced while challenging the officers to shoot him. He was arrested after being hit with a Taser.
- GPD responded on a Sunday night to a residence after the caller stated a relative had pointed a gun at him. Officers found the man inside the house with a gun in his hand. Officers were able to take the man to the floor with no shots fired.
- A GPD officer stopped a traffic violator, and the man got out of his vehicle and repeatedly reached into his waistband as if he had a weapon. After the man was taken into custody it was learned that he had just attempted to kill an individual by running him down and was attempting to commit “suicide by cop.”
- Shortly before midnight, officers located a man who was reported to have just threatened another man with a gun. When confronted, he drew a semiautomatic pistol and held it at his side. GPD officers did not fire and instead directed beanbag rounds at the man. He was knocked to the ground and surrendered.
Garner said the push toward being “warrior cops” is not indicative of all departments.
The militarization of police forces traces back to the creation of the first SWAT team in the 1960s by Daryl Gates, an inspector with the Los Angeles Police Department. Gates created SWAT to deal with situations like the 1965 Watts riots.
Garner told WND he believes the warrior-cop trend is partly due to a breakdown in respect for authority that used to exist for police officers.
“What I am seeing is an increase in the number of people who are willing to take us on that didn’t exist years ago,” Garner said. “While I don’t know if police officers should necessarily be intimidating, the reality is years ago the bad guys were more intimidated by the presence of a police officer then they are today, and they are more likely to resist arrest.”
He said there also are more criminals who are armed, and “when they encounter a police officer who is trying to take them into custody they are increasingly willing to rely on that weapon.”
“This is happening now more than at any other time in my career,” he said.
Garner said when he talks to fellow police chiefs across the state and nation they tell him they are seeing similar trends.
He explained that as a result, police departments began changing their training to include officer safety courses as a matter of necessity.
“When I first became a police officer in 1969 there was no such thing as officer safety training. Over the last several decades we started teaching officer safety, how to stay alive in the streets. As a result, the number of officers killed has generally come down over the past 11 years.”
He said he wants to mitigate against the phenomenon seen in war, when one side’s raising of the level of hostilities prompts the other to respond in kind.
“When I’m teaching officer safety and I talk to these young police officers about all of the bad things that could happen to them out there, I don’t want them to be jumping at every noise they hear and everything they see out of the corner of their eye,” he said.
“You don’t want them to develop a hair trigger for everything they see to the point they assume something bad is going to happen to them. Very frequently the police department gets young officers out of the academy, and the first thing their new supervisors have to do is calm them down and tell them that while everything they learned in the academy about officer safety is valid, they still need to recognize that not everybody they encounter on the street is trying to kill them.”
He also prefers the term “peace officer.”
“You don’t often hear the term peace officer used much anymore,” Garner said. “While my use of the term may show that I’m somewhat dated, I still believe that we’re out here … to keep the peace and hopefully you can do that without an arrest, hopefully you can do that without the use of force.”