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.

Photo by Diego G Diaz

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