The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Warrior mindset’ police training proliferated. Then, high-profile deaths put it under scrutiny.

Officers block a Chicago street during a protest of police violence in April. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)
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Ethan Murray was shot five times by a sheriff’s deputy on May 4, 2019.

Murray, 25, was killed in a wooded area behind the Parkside at Mirabeau apartment complex in Spokane Valley, Wash. Two deputies had responded to a call of a “disorderly person” running on the apartment grounds. The 911 caller said that there were children nearby and that the person appeared to be intoxicated. When deputies arrived, a chain-link fence separated them from Murray. One deputy’s report described him as having an “unsteady gait” and a “distant stare.” When Murray began to walk away toward the woods, the deputies separated, each searching for a way through the fence. One of them, Joseph Wallace, found a spot where he could squeeze through, and he bounded toward the tree line. Within a couple of minutes, he had caught up to Murray and at 5:42 p.m. — 16 minutes after arriving at the scene — “Shots fired!” rang out on the dispatch radio.

Murray tumbled down an embankment. Wallace, who had reported over the radio that Murray had “been threatening me” and said Murray seemed to be talking about something in his pocket, remained at the top of a rocky outcropping, waiting for two more deputies to catch up. When they arrived, Murray was handcuffed and bleeding. At 6:01 p.m., he was declared dead at the scene.

Last month, Murray’s parents filed a claim in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington against Spokane County and Wallace. Among the causes of death, the lawsuit cites Spokane County’s encouragement of “employee attendance at ‘Warrior Mindset’ and/or ‘Killology’ trainings.” Such sessions, the lawsuit says, create “a culture of excessive force and disregard for de-escalation.”

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment because the litigation is pending.

In an interview with The Washington Post this week, Justine Murray said her son struggled with his mental health and would disappear for weeks at a time.

“The hardest thing as a parent was just trying to figure out how to get him help,” she said.

Murray was one of 999 people fatally shot by police in 2019, and his death has raised questions about how police are trained to do their dangerous and sometimes deadly jobs. Murray, who had been diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder, had seven contacts with area law enforcement in his final three days — the last one quickly turning into an aggressive pursuit that ended in a fatal shooting. Murray’s death happened at a time when scrutiny of “warrior mindset” training, an approach that some law enforcement officers bring to their jobs every day, was mounting.

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The term “killology” was coined by Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and U.S. Military Academy psychology professor who has zigzagged the country to bring his police seminars to thousands of officers. His 1995 book, “On Killing,” explores the psychological reaction to extreme violence. It asserts that people need, in a sense, to be trained to have a healthy emotional reaction to killing. It is on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List and has been part of the curriculum at the FBI and the nation’s service academies.

“Another human being attacking you, violating you, attempting to steal away your life and beat you and harm you — this is the most psychologically toxic and corrosive thing any human being will ever face, violent crime,” Grossman said in an interview with The Post last week. “And this is what our police face.”

Nowadays, Grossman refers to his seminars as “sheepdog training” rather than “warrior training.”

“I talk about sheepdogs. And the sheepdog doesn’t harm the lamb, but the sheepdog is capable of violence at the moment of truth.”

“If he’s not emotionally and psychologically prepared to use that gun at the moment of truth, he’ll panic and bad things will happen.”
— Dave Grossman

In recent years, Grossman’s work as a police trainer has faced increasing public scrutiny. Amid high-profile killings, from Tamir Rice in 2014, to Philando Castile in 2016, to George Floyd in 2020, more agencies and municipalities have questioned the value of the warrior or sheepdog mind-set. Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony, Minn., officer who fatally shot Castile, had attended one of Grossman’s classes, the “Bulletproof Warrior.” He was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in 2017. In neighboring Minneapolis, the police department explicitly banned “warrior” training.

“I tell cops our mission is never to kill,” Grossman said. “We are always trying to save lives, and we are using deadly force because we sincerely believe there is no other option in the face of imminent threat of life, limb or grievous bodily harm of self or others.”

“If he’s not emotionally and psychologically prepared to use that gun at the moment of truth, he’ll panic and bad things will happen,” Grossman added.

He touts his training as part of what he refers to as the “daily acid test” of decentralized policing of the country’s nearly 18,000 federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies, from New York to Seattle to Laramie, Wyo. Deadly force is a tool, and it’s a tool any law enforcement officer may need to use in what Grossman describes as a violent country. And if departments continue to allow their officers to attend Grossman’s seminars, they must be working — the acid test must be teasing out what effective policing looks like.

“If police need a gun, then they need to be psychologically prepared to use it. I have to shoot this guy, and I want to be ready,” said Grossman. “That’s what they’re seeking.”

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In the aftermath of Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, calls for defunding police forces became popular rallying cries at protests across the country.

“This is a bountiful nation. We can have social workers and cops; we have those resources,” Grossman said about sending social workers to check on a person suffering from mental illness rather than a police officer.

“But look at these cities that are calling for defunding the police. It’s chaos. Those police officers are leaving and going where they are appreciated.”

A recent survey conducted by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, results of which were released in June, looked at police attrition in 194 law enforcement agencies. It found an 18 percent increase in resignations and a 45 percent increase in retirements from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021.

The knife

When a second deputy arrived at the scene of the shooting in Spokane Valley, he said in his report, Wallace told him that Murray brandished “a knife or something.” Thirty days after the shooting, Wallace prepared a written statement with the aid of his criminal defense counsel. In it, Wallace described the object as having “a black handle, which I recognized as that of a pocket knife. I noticed a silver or gray glistening reminiscent of a blade from the end of the black handle.”

Wallace wrote that Murray drew the item: “He held it in his right clenched fist with the blade protruding from the bottom of his fist.”

The morning after the shooting, police recovered a knife about 100 feet from where Murray had died. Another deputy, however, submitted a sworn statement saying that the knife recovered was his, and that he had dropped it while securing the crime scene overnight.

County investigators concluded that a pair of black sunglasses, found near where Wallace had first made contact with Murray in the woods, was what had been mistaken for a weapon.

‘Ask. Tell. Make.’

“When I first started, it was, Ask. Tell. Make,” said Ernie Stevens, a former police officer. “I’m going to ask you to do something, I’m going to tell you, and if you don’t respond I’m going to make you.”

Stevens spent 28 years as a law enforcement officer in Texas, and he helped form the San Antonio Police Department’s mental health response unit. He retired last year, and now he trains officers on de-escalation techniques.

“What we’ve seen and come to understand from community members is that the way police are responding to the community and the training can be very antiquated based on where we need to be,” said Stevens. “In 12 years on the mental health unit in San Antonio, dealing with people in a psychotic state of mind, I never had to use deadly force.”

Grossman noted the number of police officers who are killed on duty — as of Wednesday, the Officer Down Memorial Page listed 44 officers killed by assaults, shootings or stabbings so far this year — as a reason for their heightened vigilance.

According to preliminary data released by the FBI last month, homicides in the United States increased by 25 percent in 2020. The rise was seen not just in the several cities that cut police budgets, but in places that maintained police funding and police presences in their communities. Overall crime rates, however, remain low when compared with the 1970s or 1980s.

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Stevens said many departments have moved away from instilling the warrior or sheepdog mentality in recruits.

“Teaching that in the academy, it does a disservice because what they’re doing is they’re preparing these cadets for war and they’re scaring them upon graduation that the moment you graduate, you have to go out there and be careful because everybody wants to kill you.”

Training in Spokane

In June 2020, little more than a year after Murray’s death, the Spokesman-Review newspaper reported that Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich (R) had invited Grossman to present one of his seminars. The training sessions were to be voluntary for officers to attend, but the Spokesman-Review quoted Knezovich endorsing the training, saying: “I am tired of being bullied by political rights and left. I will do the best I can for this community, and we will provide the best training we can for our community, our deputies and the officers within this community. That is our commitment.”

Grossman’s appearance at the event, scheduled for October 2020, was eventually canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Another police trainer, Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith, led a presentation instead.

According to data obtained by The Post, police for the city of Spokane — a separate entity from the county sheriff’s office — shot 27 people from 2013 to 2019. For that period, Mapping Police Violence ranked Spokane as the city with the third-highest rate of police killings in the nation.

“Right now, law enforcement is set up to meet the needs of the local voters,” said Grossman, noting the dearth of national standards for police training. “The departments that are failing are those inner cities.’”

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Policing, from then to now

As modern policing evolved in the 19th century, it often was involved in local political machinery, primarily beholden to constituent services and ensuring that its patrons remained in office. In the 20th century, amid Prohibition and the aftermath of World War I, the focus shifted to crime-fighting, and the cultural norms of policing shifted to enforcing the law.

“Think Joe Friday: ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’” said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, referring to the “Dragnet” character. “Although, he famously didn’t actually use that phrase.”

Stoughton, who was a Tallahassee officer for five years, analyzed in the Harvard Law Review the “warrior” and “guardian” approaches to policing.

As violent crime rates rose in the 1970s and 1980s, Stoughton said, departments adopted what was called community policing as a way to explain how enforcing the law was no longer reducing crime.

“Policing in many ways adopted a veneer of this community engagement, community policing, but still maintained a crime-fighting orientation,” Stoughton told The Post. “And as the name suggests, crime-fighting is inherently adversarial. My observation is not that crime-fighting is bad — of course it’s not — but that the adversarial orientation in policing affects the way that officers make decisions about how to act when they interact with community members.”

Kyle McLean is a professor at Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences who has studied policing techniques. His research has focused on the police departments in Fayetteville, N.C., and Tucson.

“What we found is that the warrior and the guardian approaches are distinct, that they do exist,” said McLean. “Most officers tend to be a bit of both, like a spectrum, but these are separate attitudes that affect approaches to policing.”

Officers who responded more positively to a warrior mind-set were also apt to respond more positively to the use of force in a hypothetical scenario. Likewise, officers who responded more positively to a guardian mind-set were more apt to view their primary function as being that of a community partner. Younger officers with less experience in their communities were more likely to lean toward the warrior mind-set.

Grossman describes something similar to a spectrum, what he calls the continuum of force: from physical interaction to pepper spray to deadly force.

“Most police calls are resolved without any use of force. And now cops are afraid to use deadly force even when it’s justified,” said Grossman.

Stoughton disagrees.

“What is the highest priority in policing?” said Stoughton. “One of the things that bothers me is the way that the policing industry has evolved to treat courage under combat conditions as the highest form of police professionalism.”

“Have that mind-set ready to go there when you need it. It shouldn’t always be switched on. It’s not healthy for you. It’s toxic stress that wears and tears on you over the years.”
— Ernie Stevens

Fear in the line of duty

Wallace, the Spokane deputy who fatally shot Murray, is described in the lawsuit as having training and experience with his department’s special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team, as well as having served with a program that conducts advanced training scenarios to improve officer performance under stress. In his statement, he said that he came upon Murray suddenly, and that Murray was within six feet of him. Wallace was not carrying a stun gun at the time of the shooting.

“Having nowhere to go, fearing for my life,” is how Wallace’s statement described the moment before the shooting.

“Being a police officer is scary,” said Stevens, the former officer and trainer. “An officer involved in a shooting? They’re thinking I don’t care about anything else, but this guy is not going to kill me today. I’m going home to my family, and I get it. … You’ve got to have that kind of mind-set when you’re involved in a traumatic event like that. But my point is: Have that mind-set ready to go there when you need it. It shouldn’t always be switched on. It’s not healthy for you. It’s toxic stress that wears and tears on you over the years.”

Shifting police attitudes about how to do their jobs is complicated, Stoughton said. With so many departments — so many “acid tests” — it falls on each department to regulate itself.

“Some of their assimilation into police culture, which is a very important aspect of initial police training and experience, can emphasize the ‘kick a-- and take names’ [mind-set]. There will be a crime-fighter approach whether they get that in the academy or from a field training officer or just from their other peers there,” said Stoughton.

From Sandpoint to Spokane

Murray had grown up first in Wisconsin, then Sandpoint, Idaho, with his mother, Justine Murray, and a younger sister, where he enjoyed hiking and skiing. He started showing signs of mental illness in high school. He sometimes stayed with his mother, sometimes with his father — Mark Jentsch, in Illinois — and sometimes on his own.

“He moved around a lot, just trying to figure things out,” said Justine Murray. “He would start with something — he loved food and wanted to be a chef — but he would spiral and I would get a call.”

In Sandpoint or elsewhere, Justine Murray would try to help her son manage his problems.

In 2017, he was arrested in Florida over a public disturbance and held in a state hospital for more than a year. When he was released in November 2018, he returned to Sandpoint.

“He got a job and seemed stable, but then one day everything just changed,” said Justine Murray. “I think he would self-medicate, and he would just spiral so quickly.”

Justine Murray saw her son for the last time on March 13, 2019.

She said Spokane was a frequent destination for him because of its homeless shelters. At the time of his death, Murray was living in a wooded encampment with other unhoused people.

On May 2, 2019, Murray had his first encounter with Spokane law enforcement that week. Two sheriff’s deputies contacted him after a disturbance at a local diner. They said he showed signs of mental distress. Murray was taken to jail for a misdemeanor warrant and released the next day. There would be five more encounters before the call to the Parkside at Mirabeau apartments. In each, police noted that Murray showed signs of mental distress.

“Until something like this happens to you, you don’t know how the system works,” said Justine Murray. “We just want some accountability.”

Spokane County’s de-escalation policy says “deputies should consider that taking no action or passively monitoring the situation may be the most reasonable response to a public mental health crisis.”

Although the 911 caller at the apartment complex speculated that Murray might be intoxicated, toxicology reports revealed no controlled substances or alcohol in his system.

The Spokane County prosecutor’s office deemed the shooting justified in October 2019.

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