Hazing and Bullying in the Police Academy

hazing 2 Last week I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about police training in Atlanta. It reminded me of my days in the Marines – not my 33 years in the police.

I spent a decade on active and reserve duty as a U.S. Marine. I was an enlisted man and went through a tough 12-week boot camp in San Diego in the late 1950s.. The things I were asked to do and bear made sense given my chosen occupation: I was to be a fighting man — to seek out, engage, and destroy an enemy

When I left the Marines and set off to become a police officer, I thankfully was trained as a police officer and not a soldier. That made sense to me as I quickly understood that there was a big difference between the two.

Now back to the Times story: it was about Jacob Mach’s journey to America from the Sudan. He was one of the 4,000 “Lost Boys” of the Sudan. After coming to America 12 years ago, he now was training to become an Atlanta police officer.

You can see the full video story HERE. hazing

What I saw in this documentary was a questionable learning environment that both emotionally and physically stressed its students.

During my years as a police leader, I tried to teach other police departments the best way to go about preparing young men and women to become police officers. This was not one of them.

I stress in my book that police officers need to be college educated, well-trained, controlled in their use of force, honest, and respectful. The following is a story about one of my experiences teaching leadership and improvement methods to a large urban police department in the West:

“As I was setting up my classroom at their training academy, I looked out the window and observed a formation of their new police recruits. I decided to go outside and get a closer look. The recruits were standing in three ranks—it was an inspection, a situation I could easily relate to from my days as a Marine.

“Suddenly, the training instructors started yelling at the new officers. Some were ordered to do push-ups by way of the familiar military command: ‘Drop and give me ten.’ In addition, I heard the instructors calling the young officers ‘assholes.’ I returned to the classroom in time to greet the chief and his command staff. I introduced myself and the curriculum for the next three days, then asked, ‘Are your officers permitted to call citizens names?’ They seem shocked, ‘We have rules against doing that. Why do you ask?’

“’Well,’ I replied, ‘I was watching your new officers outside this window and observed your trainers calling them very derogatory names. You know, it really doesn’t matter if you have rules against such conduct because when their teachers call them names, they will think that it’s okay for them to do the same to citizens. And if you ever try to discipline them, their defense will simply be, ‘That’s what the department taught me.’”

“I recently learned that the department never did change. Their academy remains stress-based, military, and intimidating. I don’t know if their training officers ever stopped calling recruit officers names. But one thing I do know, is that if they don’t stop, I predict they will continue to have problems with officers disrespecting citizens. How could they expect any different kind of an outcome?…

“Half of our nation’s police academies train in an atmosphere police trainers themselves identify as stress-based; that is, intimidating, even bullying. This makes half of American police academies more like military boot camps or correctional facilities than places in which college-educated young men and women are prepared to be professional police practitioners…

“Today, many police departments still continue to run their training academies like boot camps. These departments have training officers who look and act like Marine Corps drill instructors. They even wear the familiar Smoky Bear hats of a Marine drill instructor. As I became more acquainted with police work, I couldn’t understand why police were using the same training model I had been subjected to as a Marine. There was no similarity whatsoever between being a Marine infantryman and a police officer—the two job functions were as different as night and day.

I found this documentary about police training in Atlanta to be very unsettling. I challenge the basic assumptions about the efficacy of this model. First of all, is it necessary to bully and abuse police recruits in order to teach them the skills necessary to be an effective police officer today? Do people learn better under encouragement than stress? I think we all know the answer.

Secondly, if the stress-based, boot camp style is a necessary part of police work, why aren’t the highly-valued physical fitness requirements required of all police officers during their careers, not just at the beginning? (In fact, the only skill that continues to be evaluated by most police departments is periodic firearms, and not physical fitness, qualification standards.)

The best argument against this method of teaching occurs in the documentary itself. It was when Mach was having trouble on the shooting range and we see two styles of teaching used on him: one by an aggressive and demeaning male instructor and the other by a nurturing female instructor. Which one was effective in helping Mach qualify that day? Of course, the instructor who acted in a helping and humane manner.

This kind of debasing treatment in one way or another continues as the primary training protocol in at least half of our nation’s police training academies. It must stop.

At the end of the documentary, Mach was dismissed from the academy. Thankfully, he found a job as an Atlanta city Code Enforcement Officer. Watching him work effectively in this new job tells me that given another kind of training environment he would be a successful police officer.

The other thing that troubles me is that while we, as a nation, are working to eliminate hazing and bullying in our nation’s schools and workplaces, we need to take a better look at how our recruit police officers are treated. Hazing and bullying does not teach anyone anything except how to haze and bully. And they are not the kind of things we want our nation’s police to know let alone be subjected to.


[UPDATE: More recently Sue Rahr, director of police training in Washington state made some important changes along the lines of this blog in 2015 in order to instill a “guardian” mindset (versus “warrior”) among her recruits and was included in the recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.]

[NEWER UPDATE: RCMP Recruiting video. To which my comment is: “Great for training Marines, bad for police and citizens they serve.”

83 Comments

  1. We were taught to think under stress from the moment you touch foot onto Parris Island. Over the time of the 1990s in police work, there was a real lax and people trained in that manner would also respond on the street in the same exact fashion. They regarded me as a dinosaur because of my regimentation. You train the way you fight, and fight the way you train, is very accurate.
    Regimentation is good at the beginning as many today have never had any discipline or thoughts of conforming into a unit. Some agencies I have seen from time to time looking for candidates, do state that physical fitness must be maintained, and I wonder about rapid turn-over rates and the dollar figure to train new people, then bring them up to speed once they are actually on patrol.
    I used to do my USMC routine on juveniles, and when I had to transport prisoners – 25 at a time on daisy chains and only myself, another cop, and an unarmed civilian wagon driver (Motor Vehicle Operator). I used to make sure they weren’t going to try anything without thinking of consequences. I even had them sound-off their number in line, and the usual “Yes, Sir!”. Then again, I looked kind of mean with a flat-top crew cut, and Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, above my medals on the shield backing leather.
    Discipline for new candidates is not a bad thing. The bad thing, is not recognizing when supervisors cannot understand their role in inspiring. If the wrong, or improper inspiration is given, failure on the street will result as the officers will only know but one way of dealing with people, and it will be the wrong way.
    Maybe, if the academy instructors did their routine, then hand over the platoon to other cops that have twenty or more years on the Job, to put things back into perspective. We help people, especially in their time of need. When other cops accused me of being “a social worker”, I always told them of suffering I witnessed in DaNang. Few, understood. When I got between a handful hitting some kid that wasn’t a bad guy but got mixed up in words, I took a few punches while yelling to stop hitting the kid. I was instantly branded a bad guy and became a pariah. The people in the community respected me.
    That’s my 2 cents.

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  2. This is how to build a foundation for a culture of protection and covering up. Its a tactic used in the military meant to build unit cohesion, and its typically very effective. Break ’em down to build them back up.

    Yes, you need means to get cadets used to making decisions when things are chaotic. Finding a way to make sure you don’t disable their humanity is also needed.

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  3. One of the problems of training cops not to be bully is how are you going to deprogram them when they were bullies while growing up as children and it gets reinforce when they join the military and many of them become drill instructors themselves? You are fighting 20 to 30 years of someone being a bulliy at an early age, and there is an excellent change that many of them will never change. It is too bad that human emotions can’t be change just as easily as data is on a computer

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  4. David: Remember the time you showed up at a PERF meeting with a Radio Shack TRS2 as first tech-savvy police chief in America? Well I sat at your elbow. Bob Lunney here and like you I am lurking on the sidelines of policing, yelling encouragement and suggestions. My blog is http://www.rla-robertlunneyassociates.com/ and I call your attention to my uptake on this article and to your website. Read your book and much enjoyed. As ever, your views are vital to the conscience of policing. Bob

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    1. I forgot about the TRS2, but not you. I have always considered you to be one of our “good guys” who with us pressed forward. Good to hear from you. Will check out your blog. Blessings and keep “yelling encouragement and suggestions.” They are so needed today!

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  5. I don’t see any of what you are asserting in that video. I graduated from the Atlanta Police Academy, and what was featured in that video is maybe 10% as difficult as the academy I experienced.

    I have no problem acting professionally at work, however I do notice that a good number of officers have an enormous problem with controlling situations, reacting while under stress, and being too passive when confronted with aggressive criminals.

    Guardians need to have a Warrior mode. I see no difference between the role of a Marine and that of a police officer. To me the difference is when the “Warrior” light switch is flicked on and off. Obviously a U.S. Marine, especially on deployment, is going to be “on” much more often. However a police officer needs to go from giving directions to someone trying to blow their head off, and everything in between, possibly all in the same work shift.

    I’ve never met Officer Mach. He seems like an amazing person. That being said, I have seen first hand on multiple occasions recruits who worked themselves up and didn’t pass qualifications. I think you wrongly vilify the male firearms instructor. You call that yelling? I saw a recruit going into that “black” threat stress level where he was so anxious he couldn’t understand right from left and couldn’t recall/follow instructions. I’ve never wanted anyone to succeed as I did watching Jacob in that video, but I still recognize that it was the same issue causing his struggles in driving, and that is not something we can worry about in a life-threatening situation on the street.

    They teach customer service in the academy. They teach LBGT, empathy, sexual harassment, professionalism, ethics, and crisis intervention. None of that was shown in the video. They also don’t show our version of “Hell Week” aka SWAT week. The most important lesson I learned in the academy came at the end. After 6 months of getting yelled at for infractions that never happened, 1000s of push-ups and sit-ups, then a week of the most arduous physical activity I have ever been subjected to….every Instructor and SWAT operator who’d been torturing us lined up, smiled, and welcomed us into their family. This is where the perspective comes from and how I came to understand the necessity of a paramilitary academy.

    Swords have to be forged before they are sharpened.

    Field training, foot beat, and during 1st assignment is where one learns in a more supportive environment.

    You mention you were “trained as a police officer.” You were already a trained soldier. Most police recruits are coming from suburban environments where their parents took care of everything. This is Atlanta, GA. It isn’t Edina or Minneapolis, MN. It is the center of drug activity running east/west to Mexico and north/south to New York/Miami. We have an enormous gang problem both local and international (MS-13, the Mexican cartels, etc). We have to be able to train in both ways as much as possible.

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    1. I don’t think we are conflicting on this. My point (and maybe it was not made strongly enough) is this: harassment for harassment’s sake is never a good training method. I am not against stress and putting pressure on trainees, I support it as long as it is job-related. Emergency vehicle operation, defensive tactics, combat firearms, de-fusing domestics, etc. We can train police recruits without demeaning them. Thanks for your input on this. Atlanta is no doubt a tough city, but police tactics need to support the community and its values or else police become simply an occupying force in hostile territory. Here’s to good policing!

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    2. Switching on and off the Warrior switch is not as easy as it sounds; otherwise, soldiers, marines, and police officers would not have such poor relationships with their loved ones, people in their own organizations, and with the rest of the American population because they view anyone and everyone as the enemy and demand that people obey their orders without questions.

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  6. Hello: I am reaching out to you on behalf of Cengage Learning. We are in the early stage of content selection for our upcoming book on cyberbullying, and my editor is potentially interested in republishing your piece, “Hazing and Bullying in the Police Academy.” Should my editor decide to include this piece, who (or how) should I have my researcher contact to request permission to republish?
    Thanks so much!
    Ashley Maynard
    Intellectual Property Analyst
    Cengage Learning

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  7. As for having gone through the Atlanta Police Academy several years ago I must disagree with the author. Stress based training is necessary to training police recruits. It shows weakness and breaking points that can be addressed in a controlled environment like an academy. If a person can not handle stress in a police academy how can they be expected to perform under stress on the street? I mean do you really want an officer who may cry if being talked to harshly by prisoner they have in custody, loose their cool if called a name, or shrink in fear during a physical altercation. We are training police officers here not dispatchers.

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    1. Kyle, thanks for commenting. Perhaps you misunderstand my position on this: I am NOT opposed to strees in the police academy as long as it is JOB RELATED. As a former Marine, I am opposed to juvenile, chicken-shit methods to denigrate, demean and harrass young men and women who wish to be police officers. I am in favor of realistic, strees-related training scenarios with regard to handling conflict, defensive tactics, pursuit driving and shoot/don’t shoot situations. A further point is that if we want to encourage educated, mature individuals to become police officers we had better treat them with respect — just like we should be treating each and every citizen we encounter on the job. I hope you will agree with me.

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  8. If you think that police dispatchers have a cushy, easy job, Kyle, you are sadly mistaken. They deal with stress everyday and they have to stay calm under pressure, keep their emotions in check and not to panic when something unexpected like a major disaster comes up. Many of them are suffering from PTSD just like police officers and firemen. BTW, Kyle, if you have been looking at the situation for years, police officers have been losing their cool when someone challenges their authority, execercise their constitutional rights, or display a so-called contempt of cop towards them.

    Michael Brown was left in the streets for days [Ed. Note: hours] before his body was removed because the cops wanted to send a warning to anyone who dare challenge them let alone display a contempt of cop attitude. It shows how too sensitive cops are or have been for the last several decades.

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  9. I can agree with the removal of some of the bs hazing. For example in my academy class on day one when the instructors came to meet you with a “warm welcome” they stuck a honey bun in the mouths of the overweight recruits and made them hold it between their teeth while the smoked us for several hours. Though funny it was a bit childish. However I do disagree with the removal of the yelling and discipline aspect that some academy are going to. As for the dispatcher comment I will not appoligize. There is a difference in sitting in a chair talking on the radio during a help call vs being on the street. I’m not saying being a dispatcher is easy. I couldn’t multitasking the way they do but you are comparing apples to oranges.

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  10. I feel as though the verbal abuse and hazing can be benificial. I believe it helps to build camaraderie by exposing recruits when they are vulnerable and puts them on the spot in front of other members their class. Since this will happen to every one in the class it is fair. It forces people out of their comfortable zone and shows that passing the academy is a team effort not an induvidual. I believe a softer academy may encourage more of an individual mindset rather than one of team work.

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    1. I don’t think verbal abuse and hazing is beneficial. You might be interested in learning that 21st Century Task Force on Policing agrees with me when they wrote this: “The training innovation hubs should develop replicable model programs that use adult-based learning and scenario based training in a training environment modeled less like boot camp. Through these programs the hubs would influence nationwide curricula, as well as instructional methodology (Recommendation 5.1.1). Thanks for sharing your opinion!

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  11. Kyle, you need to spend a week in the dispatcher’s office and see for yourself what kind of stress and work they have to deal with and then tell us if it is an easy job. Comparing apples to oranges? Not when it comes to emotional toll. The dispatchers are suffering from PTSD just like firemen, police officers, and EMTs even though they are sitting in an office.

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  12. Police officers have earned their own proud mythology. Why borrow one from the military? Ask a Texas Ranger if he is a warrior and he will tell you, “I’m a Ranger.”

    Also, teaching a new police recruit to regard their fellow citizens as sheep (naive, helpless, ungrateful) condemns that officer to a long, bitter career.

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  13. “Also, teaching a new police recruit to regard their fellow citizens as sheep (naive, helpless, ungrateful) condemns that officer to a long, bitter career.”

    What about new police officers thinking that citizens are not entitled to remain silent or telling the officer that he/she can’t search the person, his/her car, and his/her residence without sufficient probable cause? Why about teaching a new police recruit that is okay to lie to citizens?

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  14. As someone who was hired as a PO, and was in the academy, the author is 100% correct. There is no need, or reason, for instructors to degrade or demean recruits, yell/scream at them, and force unnecessary physical exercise. If physical shape is such an important concept, why is it not tested throughout their careers, and number 2, how many overweight cops do you see on the streets doing “the job”. The author was correct in saying it is a form of hazing/bullying, and it is teaching recruits to react with citizens as they were treated in the academy. I commend the woman in Washington State; and notice how her style of academy training has decreased the State’s use of force/brutality cases and complaints. More states should follow. I hope NYS does; which I don’t see happening any time soon. There is NO reason to run police academies like a Marine boot camp. This needs to change. Maybe more people will start to respect cops, and there will be less use of force issues. It is utter Stupidity with this “macho”, shoot/beat up anything that moves, drop and give 30 pushups/run ten miles a day mentality!

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    1. Thanks, Brian, for your insight. Unfortunately, the data shows that over 1/2 of our police academies identify themselves as “stressed-based;” read “Marine-like boot camp!” It remains a sad state of affairs and a blocking many of those with the intellect police need today.

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  15. Unfortunately, you have die-hards who will tell you that this kind of training works at both military basic training and at the academy. The trouble is that no one has come up with a better kind of training at the academy and in the military. Even if someone had come up with a better idea, you would face incredible resistance.

    I wonder if that woman who runs the police academy in the state of Washington has revamped the curriculum where is forbidden for officers to lie to the citizens? Also, did she revamp the training where if the officer is told by a citizen that he/she (the officer) cannot search someone, a place, and a car, does the officer have to back off and respect it?

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    1. That was Sue Rahr, former sheriff of King County, who now runs the state training academy for all police in Washington State (including Seattle). She has changed the “stress/boot camp” style into that of a college campus atmosphere. I did that in Madison in 1973. My instructions were direct: “We are now hiring college graduates, the atmosphere of the training must be that of a university — not a boot camp. I was a Marine. I know what boot camp is and what it does — it not an appropriate training style to train mature men and women who want to become police officers.”

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  16. These out of shape officers if they were in the British Army would be put on 3 month warning order if they had flunked the physical test.

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  17. Did Ms. Rahr change the training where cops cannot lie to the citizens and/or a police officer needs to back off when a citizen invokes his/her 5th Amendment nor refuses consent to a police search when there was no sufficient probable cause?

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  18. This is still your best article, that I’ve read which is why I cited it again in an article explaining how violence escalates from early to more violence later in life including police officers that may be trained to be more concerned with blindly following orders than to protect and serve.

    It’s the one linked to in my user avator for this reply

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  19. It is standard procedure at the Greene County Police Academy in Xenia Ohio.
    We had a Sgt. Cook from the Ohio State Police as an instructor. He screamed at recruits, called them names and used racial slurs.
    Some recruits complained to the Commander, and he dismissed them as being wimps.

    Nobody learned from Sgt Cooks class because he was so busy yelling and insulting.

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    1. Exactly! Human persons do no learn in such an environment. You are not being trained to join Seal Team 6, but rather a corps of confident, effective men and women who are able to handle human problems and conflicts. Yet… over 1/2 of our police academies have not learned this. What should they be like? Colleges! Not boot camps! Thanks for sharing this. Be a great cop! Keep on learning.

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    1. Here’s a link to a good rundown on what’s ailing our police — the lack of professionaltraining; to wit, it is too short, it has too few competent, educated, well-trained experienced teachers, and most of the training are run like they are preparing soldiers and not highly developed men and women who can competently and confidently respond to a host of societal problems without having to use deadly force. Read and weep!

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  20. With all these problems that are occurring in police training, it is amazing how cops manage to solve a crime and that the number of cops being killed in this country has remained at about 200 more or less per year even during the various drug epidemics since the 1950s.

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  21. “Exactly! Human persons do no learn in such an environment. You are not being trained to join Seal Team 6.”

    The thing is that people like the Seals and Special Forces have to think clearly and calmly whether they have the situation under control or the situation gets out of control. Many of them would make good cops because they “smarted” their way out of a situation instead of engaging in a firefight compare to an ex-Seal like Eric Prince whose his employees shot at anything and everything that got in their way which is an excellent but sad sign that Prince and his employees would have been terrible street cops.

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