LTE Police

I was a soldier in my youth and I can distinctly remember a training event geared to mentally prepare us for combat. A grizzled sergeant told us, “None of you are Rambo. That does not exist. When the bullets start flying, you will not rise to the occasion. You will sink to the level of your training.” The lesson: How you train matters the most when you are called upon to perform in a stressful situation.

 

I’ve been a policing scholar now for more than two decades. Like most Americans, I watched with horror the grotesque video of George Floyd being slowly choked to death by a police officer. As someone very familiar with American law enforcement, particularly police use of force, I have been asked many times how this could have happened and what can be done. I have a long answer to those questions but to me the best way to change police culture is to address and amend how police officers are trained.

 

Policing has always been a paramilitary institution. The first modern police force was created in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, a member of Parliament who authored the London Metro Police Act. Peel envisioned the police as a melding of the military and legal worlds. Police officers would be called upon to enforce the law and he wanted them to do it with the disciplined bearing of a soldier. When the United States recognized its own need for a formal law enforcement arm, we essentially copied the model that Peel had created. Hence, America embarked upon training police officers as we trained soldiers, and that model is essentially still in place today.

 

The military trains soldiers for very specific purposes: Their job, when called upon, is to kill the enemy or destroy anything that is useful to the enemy. If soldiers are not involved in those endeavors directly, they are trained to support those efforts. To that end, military training consciously and aggressively attempts to imbue a “warrior mentality.” Your job is to fight ferociously until victory is attained. You are taught that you are part of a team and the performance and safety of your unit supersedes your own well-being.

 

Police have a very different mission. Their charge is not to kill the enemy but rather to protect and serve American citizens. Obviously, those are two very different things, but what has always been peculiar to me is that we train soldiers and cops in a very similar way. When a candidate enters the police academy, they are largely subject to the same experience as a military recruit. Uniformity is enforced, orders are barked and aggression is taught and rewarded. That socialization is a great benefit for a soldier who will one day be deployed to a combat zone, but it is the exact opposite of what a police officer needs. 

 

First of all, the military acts as an aggregate and is trained to execute a battle plan to the best of their ability. Certainly, there is some room for initiative as circumstances change, but almost always the marching orders are to “plan the fight and fight the plan” as dictated by a commander who controls the action. Police operate under a totally different set of conditions. Generally speaking, cops patrol alone or perhaps with a partner, but almost never as a unit. The situations they face are unpredictable and many times unique, without any supervision, requiring an officer to think on his or her feet and rapidly adapt to the unfolding scenario. Military training, which stresses repetition and discipline, is not well suited for those types of problems. 

 

Next, the military stresses that your own safety is subordinate to mission success. And while policing can certainly be dangerous, one of the oldest and best known maxims amongst rank-in-file officers is that the most important consideration is that you get home safely. So police officers are taught that they must aggressively control any and all situations but the paramount consideration is their own protection. That toxic combination is certainly a precursor to excessive and illegal force being used on the street. 

 

Last, the trappings of the police uniform are much too close to their military counterparts. Soldiers are trained to be killers, hence the uniform and appearance of a soldier is synonymous with that task. Police officers have essentially co-opted that look, from the buzz cut, to the tattoos, to the tactical glasses and gear many sport today. When police officers look at themselves in the mirror prior to the beginning of their shift, they see a warrior.

 

There are many other steps that can be taken to reform policing in America, the most urgent being examining the validity of qualified immunity. But training matters. It sets the tone for a professional mindset and it dictates how a person will respond. Police should not be expected to rise to the occasion; like most of us, they will sink to the level of their training. The first tangible step we can take as a nation is to discard paramilitary preparation and focus police training on de-escalation, protection and service. The police are not the military. They have distinctly different missions that require distinctly different training and socialization.

 

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