Politics

I Learned to Think Like a “Warrior Cop”

A course from a prominent police trainer taught me to treat neighborhoods like battlegrounds—and to always be ready to kill.

Police officers holding batons.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Pop quiz! What is the third thing—besides weapons and skills—that you need to survive armed combat? Is it:

A. Ammunition?
B. Body armor?
C. Tactical advantage?
D. The will to kill?

The answer is D, obviously—or at least it would be obvious if you knew that the question is part of an online course, called “On Combat,” that is steeped in a pseudo-academic field called “killology,” and that the instructor and creator, Dave Grossman, is the foremost killologist on the planet. When I decided recently to learn how to be a warrior cop, Grossman’s course is where I turned.

I am not a cop and will almost certainly never become one. But earlier this year, I became very interested in understanding how police officers think—how the mindsets they nurture might be related to outcomes such as the killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The nationwide protest movement that erupted in May has called attention to the problem of overaggressive and racist policing in America, raising some very specific questions about police training and threat-assessment methods, situational escalation, and police tolerance of community dissent. In the background of all of this is the ongoing militarization of the American police department. Many cops these days are functionally indistinguishable from soldiers—in terms of the gear they use, the image they project, and the mindset that they embody.

There are a lot of reasons for this evolution. As Radley Balko writes in his 2013 Rise of the Warrior Cop, much of it has to do with federal incentives for police departments to pursue this country’s endless war on drugs. But another answer is that there is a cottage industry of trainers and consultants who encourage police to see their beats as a battlefield.

A retired Army lieutenant colonel with a master’s of education in counseling psychology, Dave Grossman is one of America’s best-known independent police trainers—and one of the foremost exponents of the “warrior cop” mindset. Under the aegis of his Killology Research Group—he defines killology as “the scholarly study of the destructive act, just as sexology is the scholarly study of the procreative act”—Grossman travels the country offering continuing-education seminars to cops and cop-adjacents. He musters scientific research, anecdotal evidence, and a boatload of presuppositions in order to prepare his students for the realities of combat, while valorizing the notion that the thin blue line is humanity’s last bulwark against total societal collapse.

Many have argued that “warrior cop”–style training seminars teach law enforcement officers to start from a place of fear, which can lead them to quickly turn peaceful situations violent. The officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, had attended a “Bulletproof Warrior” course co-taught by Grossman and a colleague, Jim Glennon, two years earlier. Over his career, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that officer had clocked more than 100 hours of trainings on topics such as firearms usage, street survival, and the use of force—but had only attended two hours of deescalation training.

A lot of cops want to hear from Grossman—and so did I. Though I couldn’t take one of his in-person courses—Grossman’s touring calendar, normally packed with engagements, has been empty since the pandemic began—I decided to spend $79 to take the online version of “On Combat” that can be found on his Grossman Academy website (the other courses are “On Killing” and “The Bulletproof Mind”). The class is divided into eight hourlong units. Each is effectively an enhanced PowerPoint presentation, with Grossman narrating the slides that appear on screen. Occasionally, as a treat, Grossman himself will pop up on screen to tell a story or underscore a point. Each unit ends with a five-question multiple-choice quiz, but the quizzes are not particularly challenging, and students can take them over and over again until they get a passing grade.

A certificate of completion for Justin Peters for the On Combat training.

I came away with a certificate of completion from Grossman Academy (the o in “Grossman” is a rifle sight), an abiding dislike for the term sheepdog, and a much better sense of how and why so many American police officers seem to believe that the streets of America are effectively a war zone—and why the average American police department seems so resistant to reform.

You can define a police officer’s job in a lot of ways: to solve crimes, to maintain order, to help people in need. In the first unit of “On Combat,” Grossman characterizes cops as basically like the Avengers, but with more body armor and less public accountability. “Think about it,” Grossman says, “if we went but a single generation without men and women who are willing to go out every day and confront evil, then within the span of that generation we should surely be both damned and doomed.”

Grossman’s America is a terrifying place where police are both the primary targets of and defenders against superpredation. “Increasingly the police must face organized opponents armed with assault rifles and bombs,” Grossman says at the outset of the class, citing an “explosion in violent crime” and an “extraordinary rise in violence” in the streets of America. (The online course bears a copyright date of 2014; many of the incidents that Grossman cites throughout the course happened in the 1990s.) Though many independent sources show that the violent crime rate in America has steadily declined since the early 1990s, Grossman maintains that America is now scarier than ever—and that cops may well be the ones with the most to fear. “We know that if it were not for all the body armor, bulletproof vests worn by officers, law enforcement fatalities in the United States would easily be double or even triple what they are today,” Grossman asserts. “If this is not war, then you tell me what is.”

Well, war is war: combat waged between states, or states and state-adjacent groups, or states and organized insurrections that hope to topple the state. What Grossman is describing is violent crime, the penalties for which are prescribed by civilian codes of law. But Grossman, who spent decades in the U.S. Army, doesn’t just blur the line between soldiers and police officers: He completely erases it.

When people talk about military-style policing, they are often referring to the militarized gear and weaponry that many police departments prefer these days: the body armor, the semi-automatic rifles, the armored SWAT Humvees equipped to recapture Fallujah. But the gear is just a symptom of these departments’ gradual adoption of the premise that the world is now a theater of war and that battles are most easily won through the liberal use of shock and awe. “You’ve probably heard of the Big Bang Theory,” Grossman says in Unit 2. “I call this the Bigger Bang Theory, which states that, all other things being equal, in combat, whoever makes the bigger bang wins.” Combat has clear military connotations, and Grossman’s frequent use of the term undergirds the course’s martial framing.

A picture of Barney Fife holding a bullet with a speech bubble that says, "Oh My God! I might have to kill him!"

Grossman wants cops to develop “autopilot responses” so that they will not be caught flat-footed when confronted by an armed suspect. “Is it possible to see a gun pointed at you, draw your own weapon, and shoot without conscious thought?” Grossman asks. “Not only is it possible, in this case it is highly desirable. Of course, his training must be state-of-the-art, so that he knows instantly that the threat is indeed a gun, and not a wallet or a cellphone.” In practice, many cops have had trouble clearing this threat-assessment barrier.  (“You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir,” Castile’s girlfriend told the cop who shot and killed him.)

Grossman makes sure to clarify that deadly force should be used “only under the rules of engagement,” and very few people would disagree with that caveat. But rules of engagement is also a military term, and its usage is just another willful conflation of policing and war. Grossman invokes terrorist attacks, school shootings, and a “large-scale epidemic of preteen and teenage mass murderers” who have been trained to kill on “murder simulator” video games—he spends a lot of time on this last point, and it is fairly exhausting—in order to argue that your local Officer Friendly should prepare himself to go ahead and unleash his inner G.I. Joe.

“As a cop, or a peacekeeper, your job is not to kill. It is to serve and protect. To do that, you may have to kill,” he says in Unit 4. “The most effective way to stop someone is to fire a bullet into his central nervous system. It is up to God and the paramedics as to whether the man dies. Your job is to stop the deadly threat, and the most effective way to do that is to make the threat die.” Throughout “On Combat,” Grossman is very, very clear that police officers must be ready to manifest the will to kill—and to deal with the aftermath of having done so.

“On Combat” borrows from Grossman’s book of the same name, which he co-wrote with Loren W. Christensen. In it, Grossman draws on his academic background to break down the neurological, physiological, and emotional responses that participants can expect to experience before, during, and after combat situations. It’s true that cops who are better able to control and understand their bodies and emotions while on duty are probably less likely to act recklessly. But Grossman’s goal isn’t to stop cops from killing; it’s to train them to do so more efficiently. To this end, he wants his students to understand how their minds and bodies work so that they can suppress any intrinsic resistance when it’s time to pull the trigger.

“Any natural or learned resistance to killing, any sense of the sanctity of human life, any human emotions, any remorse or compassion at the moment of truth can all be overcome and overwhelmed with training,” Grossman says in Unit 2. What’s more, he says, even a post-traumatic stress reaction can be averted with training. He acknowledges that killing in the line of duty can be very unsettling. He presents a lot of material on how a cop might expect to feel after having done so, and how their colleagues and family can help them process and cope with the experience. Grossman does not deny the reality of PTSD. But he also argues that cops who kill need not be scarred for life by their actions. “If you do the rationalization and acceptance ahead of time, if you prepare yourself and immerse yourself in the lore and spirit of mature warriors, past and present, then the lawful, legitimate use of deadly force does not have to be a self-destructive or traumatic event,” Grossman says.

Grossman wants his students to become “mature warriors” who can sleep at night untroubled by the bodies they’ve left in their wake. Though Grossman recently told the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review that the warrior model is not central to his training methods, it was certainly a large part of the course I took, which anyone can take right now. “We are warriors,” he says in Unit 1, and the theme recurs throughout the course. Unit 4 literally features a slide of a uniformed cop standing next to a medieval suit of armor, as if to underscore the ostensible link between the paladins of yore and the SWAT teams of today.

Grossman refers to his students as “sheepdogs,” battle-ready protectors who are innately responsible for—and tacitly superior to—their noncombatant charges. “We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world,” says Grossman. “They can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms, and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kids’ school.” (“On Combat” doesn’t consider whether putting armed cops in schools may well be a solution in search of a problem. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the presence of armed officers does not serve to deter school shooters or reliably stop shootings in progress.)

A picture of a slide titled, "The Sheep/Warrior Continuum" with images of a sheep and a soldier.

But what recourse do the sheep have when the sheepdog becomes the wolf? The course spends no time acknowledging any of the ways in which cops may abuse their power, and it certainly does not acknowledge the long history of ongoing mistrust between many communities and their police departments. Though I did not expect him to—the name of the course is “On Combat,” after all, not “A People’s History of Police Work”—Grossman does not address the social construction of crime and criminality, or the historically racist coding of “tough on crime” policies and rhetoric, or the political origins of this country’s endless drug war, or any other factors that might complicate his Manichean thesis. He sees no oppression in the sight of warrior cops forever riding roughshod through “bad” neighborhoods like members of an occupying army. He does not stop to consider that treating the “war on crime” like an actual war tacitly encourages cops to take less care with the lives of their “enemies”—nor does he acknowledge that those disposable lives are all too often Black ones.

While Grossman does spend part of Unit 3 discussing the phenomenon of civilians filming on-duty cops, he does so in the course of disparaging the tapers’ motives and advancing his “cops are under siege” motif: “Sometimes these videographers do creative editing to make the police look bad and then take the doctored videotape to the media.” Grossman has little use for the media. “Do the media people know that they are hurting people? Of course. They even admit it. Do they care? Apparently not,” Grossman says in Unit 6. “We are dealing with an industry functioning at the moral level of drug dealers; in fact, one of their objectives is to convince us to legalize drugs.” He also blames violent video games and entertainment products as prime factors in America’s alleged decline and fall—an argument you hear often from gun proponents looking for an alternative explanation for shootings. “Violent video games are murder simulators,” he says, “except when police officers and soldiers use them for training, in which case they are combat simulators.”

To Grossman, who makes much of school shootings as the proving grounds for game-addled, kill-crazed teens, the difference is clear. To others, the difference between “murder” and “combat” might not be so obvious. In 2019, according to Education Week, eight people in America were killed in a school shooting; 35 people were killed that way in 2018. But 999 people in America were shot and killed by the police in 2019, according to the Washington Post, and in 2018, 990 people were killed that way. Even if 95 percent of these deadly police shootings were unquestionably justifiable, the body count of the remaining 5 percent would still be higher than the body count from the school shootings that Grossman repeatedly cites as proof that it’s war out there.

But the streets of America are not a war zone. Police work is not combat. Cops are not soldiers. Property damage is not a capital offense, Black men and women are not targets for shooting practice, and Americans demanding police reform are not tantamount to some fifth column of saboteurs. In the wake of the Floyd case and other incidents, communities across America are asking their police departments to reconsider their roles and responsibilities, to pursue demilitarization, and to learn to deescalate the dangerous situations that they too often create.

Grossman has not, as far as I can tell, gone on record with his thoughts about this summer’s police reform movement. But in recent years, his style of trainings has seen a backlash from municipalities that now find them troubling, as well as a counterbacklash from police officials who seemingly can’t get enough of the “will to kill.” When Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey banned warrior cop–style courses in 2019, the local police union offered to pay for any cop who wanted to take one. When a woman in Spokane, Washington, launched a petition earlier this year to urge the county sheriff’s office to cancel an upcoming “mindset bootcamp” seminar from Grossman, the sheriff vowed that the course would go on as planned. “I am tired of being bullied by political rights and left,” the sheriff told the Spokesman-Review; earlier this month, he told a local television station that the opposition was spearheaded by “a group of progressive socialist[s]” who are “actually promoting a lie about the training.”

You want to know the truth about the training? Take it from me, a proud holder of a certificate of completion from Grossman Academy: “On Combat” teaches its students to fear and resent the people they serve, to willfully mistake this contempt for bravery, and to believe that heroism is conferred by the barrel of a smoking gun. This philosophy, as manifested by the countless police officers and officials who subscribe to it, is and will continue to be one of the foremost impediments to meaningful efforts at police reform in towns across America. “If we do not keep the warrior in the mix, we become glorified social workers with guns,” Grossman says very early in “On Combat”—and even if that’s what the communities whose taxes pay their salaries want from their police officers, Grossman implies that it is those officers’ patriotic duty to resist.

“In this dark hour, our mission is to rise up and nurture the next generation of warriors,” Grossman says at the very end of the course, his words illustrated by a photograph of a cop standing in the middle of a city street. The cop’s arms are crossed. He wears mirrored sunglasses, a baseball cap that says “POLICE,” and a resolute half-smirk on his face, as if daring the sheep and wolves alike to try to move him off his spot.

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