Some Things Can Be Learned From the Military

“Many senior police leaders have little more professional training than the rookie fresh out of the academy. While there is some ad hoc professional development, the majority of advanced training in police work is technical, dealing with new tactics and how to use specific equipment. Not enough training is focused on the profession of policing or on how to lead other officers.” — Arthur Rizer

I was alerted to the following article by a colleague of mine from the early days, Larry Hesser. Larry is a teacher, consultant, and former chief of police for many years.

The author of the article, Arthur Rizer, is the justice policy director for the R Street Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard and has served as a police officer.

He provides some recent learning from the military and its potential application to policing. He stresses that it all begins with higher education, leadership training, and a spirit of self-criticism, it is called “professionalism.” It is something I have strongly argued for many years.

unknown‘Demilitarize’ the Police? In some respects, they could stand to be more like the ­military.

Oct 24, 2016 | By Arthur Rizer

Policing has always been a difficult job. It has recently become more so. On a daily basis, officers around the country find themselves yelled at, protested against, and even targeted for assassination. They are scorned by the left as brutes and distrusted by the right as the enforcers of big government. They have been criticized for adopting the equipment and tactics of the military and have, of late, frequently been accused of unjustified shootings and other improper uses of force.

Like the police now, four decades ago the military experienced a dramatic negative shift in public attitudes. Veterans of World War II had been welcomed home with gratitude and celebrations, their service honored. Not so the veterans of Vietnam. It would fall to the soldiers who had served in Vietnam to reinvent and rebuild the U.S. military—now consistently ranked as the most trusted institution in the United States. Can any of the lessons learned reshaping the modern military be used to remake policing?

Perhaps the most important lesson police departments can take away from the military is the importance of self-criticism. In 1973, when the direct participation of American ground forces in Vietnam ended, the military—particularly the Army—took an unfiltered look at itself and realized that both its structure and its reputation were in shambles. Efforts were undertaken to remake not only how service members were recruited (most notably, ending the draft) but also to overhaul how they were trained.

That spirit of self-criticism has been missing in too many police departments, which spend too much time defending their institutions and too little listening to the complaints of those they are sworn to protect. Whether justified or not, police cannot ignore the fact there is a trust gap between law enforcement and many segments of the American people. The first step in closing that gap has to be a real attempt to address this lack of confidence, much as the military did in the 1970s.

Another valuable lesson police can learn from the military is the emphasis on professionalism. This is not to say police officers are not professionals, but rather that they should treat themselves more like professionals. In the military, advancement to every major rank is associated with a professional development school, from E-5 (sergeant in the Army) all the way to O-6 officers (Army colonel or Navy captain). And those O-6 officers must attend the War College before they are considered for promotion to general or admiral.

Many senior police leaders have little more professional training than the rookie fresh out of the academy. While there is some ad hoc professional development, the majority of advanced training in police work is technical, dealing with new tactics and how to use specific equipment. Not enough training is focused on the profession of policing or on how to lead other officers.

Even with its institutionalized self-criticism and professional development, the military isn’t an all-purpose model for police departments. The major service branches each have their own command structure, but all answer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, ultimately, to the president. It’s possible for the military to impose new rules and directions on entire commands. By contrast, the U.S. has thousands of locally structured police units. No one commander could turn around the entire ship of “policing” in America. And no one solution would work anyway: A three-man department in Wyoming has vastly different needs and issues than the New York Police Department’s nearly 35,000-member force.

But in the area of professionalism, our military seems to have figured it out, and many of our police jurisdictions have not. In remaking itself as a professional force, the military placed an emphasis on education. On average, the military today is better educated than the people it protects.

Such advancements likely would benefit police departments, as well. A recent study from Michigan State University found that college-educated officers were less violent. A report on Florida officers found that 75 percent of all disciplinary actions were filed against those who had only a high-school education. The point is not that college degrees will magically fix everything plaguing police departments, but that better-educated forces are likely to be better forces. It says something about government priorities that, in many jurisdictions, it takes more time and training to become a hairdresser than it does to become a police officer.

Then there is the issue of transparency. Police departments are notorious for the “blue wall of silence,” when officers close ranks to protect one another from accusations of wrongdoing. By contrast, note how seldom we hear media reports of a “green wall.” The military emphasizes that the mission comes first. Police departments would be wise to train as diligently as the military does that duty comes before loyalty to buddies.

It might seem strange, at a time when many are demanding we “demilitarize” the police, that we should turn to the military for guidance in how to improve policing. But emulating the professionalism and transparency that restored public trust in our military might help restore trust in those sworn to protect and serve.

Arthur Rizer is justice policy director for the R Street Institute, a Washington-based think tank. A retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, he was previously a civilian police officer.


  1. Interesting. Two quick reactions: (1) the most recent Gallup poll indicates public support for police at nearly an all-time high. So the parallel with the post-Vietnam military doesn’t quite work perfectly. (2) There was a really nice article by Tom Cowper in Police Quarterly way back in 2000 that made some of the same arguments as this essay. He noted at that time that most of us in policing and academia had a caricatured image of “military leadership” when in fact it had changed a lot since the 1970s. One thing that had changed was recognition that modern soldiers operated more independently than in 1870 or 1770, so the military’s approach to command and control had to adapt — not unlike the police challenge of managing discretion. Not exactly the same, of course, but some similarities, and the military had developed methods to guide lower level decision making within parameters that maybe police should take a look at.


    1. Good points, Gary. I remember having such a discussion about military leadership with my older officers who were questioning why we were changing our style of leadership. I had read about most of the post-Vietnam military changes/reforms and also what was going on in the corporate world. I would frequently reply to my officers that the military had changed and we need to as well. They were locked in an old model and could not visualize anything different — it was all top-down, shut-up, do what I tell you, no feedback and if you don’t like it don’t let the door hit you in your ass on the way out! — my way or the highway. As most of us know today, that simply will not work in today’s (or yesterday’s) workforce. What most caught my attention is that for over 40 years we have been advocating a college education for police and preparation training for each rung of the ladder on the way up. We don’t have much to show for it. Those early PERF meetings were painful when those who had the vision ran into those who don’t who led the big cities. The continuing question: “Where to from here?”


    2. Mr. Condner, thank you for reading my piece. I acknowledge that many polls generally indicate that support of police is relatively high (yet there are other polls done by Gallup like “respect for police” that are really low But I think we can agree there is a sentiment running through younger people that loathe the profession (I know “sentiment” is a hard thing to measure.) For instance, when I was in law school (I was actually working part-time as a civilian police officer) my criminal law professor asked the class “who here trusts the police” – this was in 2000, and 70% of the class raised their hands. I asked the same question while teaching at West Virginia University College of Law, and only about 30% raised their hands.

      I look forward to reading the Cowper article – and thank you for your comments.


      1. Arthur, thanks for responding to your article. Keep up the important work you are doing. I know those of us who call ourselves white and are older, and of “means” are puzzled when asked about trusting police — of course they do (but few if any have ever had a face to face contact with a police officer). As you mentioned, when I talk about police trust with young people and especially those of color, I sense we have an enormous job ahead of us. I will ask the trust question next week in my Intro to CJ class and see what it reveals. Earlier in the semester I found out that over half of these basically white young people support its use. Work to do. Let us all press on!


  2. I met today with a major state law enforcement agency Assistant Director and that agency’s Training Director about this very topic, progressive professional development of that agency’s leaders. Very few law enforcement agencies have developed a progressive system of professional development that prepares leaders for their next level of responsibility prior to assuming that responsibility. Professional development is for many agencies and their members an option.

    I suppose having grown up in a military family, and having served 26 years myself, I have never thought of professional development as an option. Professional development has always seemed to me to be as necessary as the air I breathe. If we are to breathe professional life into policing we are going to have to belly up to the bar and assume the responsibility of learning more about policing than we currently know.

    That responsibility for professional development will have to incorporate more than being students in professional development courses. America’s military has taken seriously the responsibility to develop its professional knowledge, and so too must America’s police. There are examples of valuable research from our past, the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment and the RAND Detective Study, to name a couple. These studies were notable for their methodologies and findings as well as their relegation to collecting dust on book shelves. We persist in failed strategies while America’s military has continually evolved since the end of the Viet Nam war. If policing is to become a profession it would be well served by emulating much of what has earned America’s military its well respected place in society.


    1. Absolutely. As I am preparing a leadership course for upper division students next semester I ran into the Commandant of the Marine Corps web page in which he (and others before him) have prepared a “reading list” ( for various ranks from recruits to field grade officers. It was impressive and reminded me again of my days in the Marines when training mattered and we all were committed to it.


  3. “it was all top-down, shut-up, do what I tell you, no feedback and if you don’t like it don’t let the door hit you in your ass on the way out! — my way or the highway. As most of us know today, that simply will not work in today’s (or yesterday’s) workforce.”

    Unfortunately, many workers are still vulnerable to the whims of the employers since the American government has been pro-business friendly to corporations and wealthy people for the last 36 years unless you are financially wealthy; whereby, you can leave your job and go look for a new one without worrying about having a roof over your head and putting clothes on your back and food on the table. In basic military boot camp, recruits still have to keep their mouths shut, not asks questions, nor back talk to officers and NCOs even when the officers and NCOs are in the wrong and you still can’t back talk to them even after you graduated from boot camp.

    The military did learn from its mistakes in Vietnam; however, it is still suffering careerism that extended even to the NCO corp. The late Colonel Dave Hackworth talk about it in several of his books when he was a soldier and later when he became a reporter for Newsweek.

    I think it is about time the USA set up 3 to 4-year police academies for the police recruits and police leadership schools from sergeant up to police chiefs like they have in Sweden, Finland, Germany, etc.., if they want to be treated as professions plus taking refresher courses as well just like we expect doctors, nurses, and teachers to take courses in order to keep their licenses/credentials.


  4. Here are some books that the CNO and Commandment of the Marines left off

    Way of a Fighter by Claire Chennault
    Pappy Gunn by George Kenny
    Kenney Reports by George Kenny
    books by General Robert Lee Scott
    Books by the late Colonel Dave Hackworth.
    Destroyer Captain
    Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II
    Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship
    Books about Marine Corp General David Shoup
    Books about Smedley Bulter and his book about War being a racket.
    A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945
    History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945
    Lost Victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General by General Von Manstein
    It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by D. Michael Abrashoff
    Principles of Success by Ross Perot


  5. Rev Couper, you might as well put your plans for police reforms on the backburner for the next 4 to 8 years because now that Trump has been elected, the cops will have no incentive to reform and will be given free rein to do what they want especially if the Supreme Court gets a conservative replacement judge who will back up the cops even if it violates the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.


  6. As a 25 experienced Police officer in a Police organization with a military nature, I’d like to say that is true that military changes have occurred in a positive and effective way, and not only in the United States,( I’m from Spain).That has improved the effectiveness in our job and relationships with our superiors. I completely agree that some things can be learned from the Military, but from the ” modern” one. We have to change our minds and begin to think that an engineer who create a engine don’t know everything about it, and needs from the mechanics and customers opinion and experience in order to improve it and solve its faults.


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