Sheep/Sheepdog/Wolf – Cop Metaphors and the Humanities

Charles Huth, a Captain in the Kansas City PD, has written an outstanding essay taking apart two metaphors commonly employed by police trainers: The “warrior” and the “sheep/sheepdog/wolf” metaphor. Not only is he on point when it comes to the analysis itself and what it says about modern policing, but I was also struck that he’s essentially performing an act of language criticism here. He’s performing the humanities.

Here’s some examples, but seriously, read the whole thing:

In the past several years, it has become popular in police training circles for trainers to use metaphors to characterize law enforcement’s relationship with the public. Among the most popular of these is the “sheep/sheepdog” allegory. Trainers who favor this sort of framing explain that many members of the public are like sheep that operate in constant fear of predators, while law enforcement officers serve as the sheepdogs that protect the hapless sheep from the wolves (criminals) that stalk them. While this type of contrasting might seem harmless, it actually objectifies both the police and the public they are sworn to serve in ways that undermine police effectiveness and helpfulness.

A sheepdog’s job is to ensure the integrity of a herd. When the herd gets out of line, the sheepdog drives them by growling and nipping at their heels. The sheepdog adopts a posture characteristic of a predator—like a wolf, for example. This transformation puts the sheep in a perpetual state of fear of being singled out and attacked, thus providing an extrinsic motivation for them to fall in line. Sheep are afraid of sheepdogs just as they are afraid of wolves. They don’t trust them and only comply because they are motivated by fear of consequence. Sheep aren’t equipped to fight their antagonists, so a growling sheepdog may not invite escalated dangers amongst the sheep. Not so with people, however. Among those being growled at are people who are capable of resisting. The sheep/sheepdog allegory completely misses how growling sheepdogs can motivate and escalate resistance.

And then there’s Huth’s conclusion:

Law enforcement in a democracy is at its best with an ethos where officers see themselves as an integral part and reflection of the best nature of the society they serve, not as a morally superior caste set above that society.

So there are two points I want to make. One is that the analysis itself is expert and thoughtful. When we create these divides – which honestly even the Guardian metaphor (which I prefer to Warrior) perpetuates – there are all kinds of consequences. Language matters and so many of the messages being sold (literally, there’s good money in being a police trainer/motivational speaker) to law enforcement heighten both their sense of being under siege and the divide between police/policed. We need to push the other way, and I’m so glad people like Huth (and others – big fan of the Chicagoland Virtus Group) are doing that work.

But second, from a higher ed perspective, why aren’t we as humanities professors locating and celebrating writing and thinking like this? Shouldn’t humanities centers at major universities be inviting Huth in to talk metaphors with English professors? Shouldn’t the MLA, AHA, CAA be tracking not how many of their majors become famous people, but how many become cops, doctors, soldiers? Maybe they do? Is there a room for this kind of pragmatic (and admittedly political) writing in the classroom? It shows both that the skills of the humanities expert matter, but also that such skills emerge far outside our disciplines and classes.

And let me be clear – I’m not saying, gosh, how surprising! I’m saying there are a lot of folks out there who are smart readers and smart critics, and only some of them have formal humanities credentials. But those of us who DO have such credentials should find and promote this kind of work.

A good cop is, among many things, savvy about how to interpret complex situations, savvy about language.

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