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NEWS | Oct. 18, 2016

Mindset Matters Most

By Capt. Timothy Haws, commander Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy

“Words matter, actions matter more and mindset matters most,” defines my command philosophy for the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy (MLEA).


As leaders the words we choose are crucial to communicating the right message. Furthermore, we must model and practice what we preach because our actions will certainly communicate an even stronger message.  Most noteworthy, are the overriding and all important impacts of mindset/attitude on leadership and life.  Let’s look at mindset within the context of policing, a topic many of us have been encouraged by current events to think about a lot recently. 


The 21st century task force on policing was created by President Obama’s Executive Order “[o]n December 18, 2014 . . . to respond to a number of serious incidents between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect.  The President wanted a quick but thorough response that would begin the process of healing and restore community trust.” [1]


One underlying theme from the report was the importance of a change in policing culture from that of “warriors” to “guardians.” The report quotes Plato, who said:


“In a republic that honors the core of democracy—the greatest amount of power is given to those called Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.”  


To make that culture change, much has been focused on the “mindsets” of those given law enforcement authority. The emphasis is on cultivating mindsets to stabilize and de-escalate encounters, while still respecting the U.S. constitution. Simply put, there is a shift from “warriors” looking to neutralize an enemy to “guardians” looking to protect a community.  There is definitely a time and place for a warrior mindset; combat for instance or when protection of life demands it. However, by and large, the guardian mindset should be the initial default setting for officers conducting law enforcement. 


The U. S. Coast Guard, as the one military branch with law enforcement authority, has consistently instilled this nuance in enforcement; so much so, that one of its seven principles of operations is “Restraint”- handed down from Alexander Hamilton himself as founder of the Revenue Marine in 1790.  In a Letter of Instruction to those early enforcement officers dated June 4th, 1791, he said: 

“They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty—by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence.”


To summarize, it is better to talk someone into compliance rather than forcing them into compliance.  This requires the sometimes tedious work of listening, empathizing, asking, summarizing, explaining and even negotiating in a respectful manner.   


So how does one cultivate an appropriate mindset, including the guardian mindset?  It starts by performing in a manner which reflects that particular mindset and requires the will-power and self-discipline to practice and become proficient at applying it.  Part of the process may mean becoming aware, mitigating and overcoming ingrained thoughts or biases counter-productive to the desired mindset. 


The human mind is extraordinarily complex and we certainly don’t have all the answers, but the MLEA is committed to enabling the skills of its students including their guardian, fitness, survivor, resilience and growth mindsets.  I encourage you to cultivate and enable productive mindsets daily. Such efforts will make you, your subordinates, your command and your community better.


[1] COPS Office. 2015. President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide: Moving from Recommendations to Action. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.