Steven Irby

Updated at 9:56 a.m. ET on August 12, 2020.

When I entered the Washington, D.C., police academy in 2016 as a recruit officer in the district’s volunteer police reserve corps, I quickly discovered that I was joining a paramilitary organization. My classmates and I practiced drill and formation, stood at attention when senior officials entered the room, and were grilled on proper boot-polishing methods. “Brilliantly shined boots are a hallmark of police uniforms,” an instructional handout informed us. “They indicate devotion to duty and attention to the smallest detail … You are required to maintain boots that are polished to a luster … In the most exceptional cases boots can be shined so that a person’s reflection may be seen in the finish.” We had instructors who rolled their eyes at this sort of thing, but we also had instructors who seemed to be channeling the Marine drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, bawling insults and punishing minor infractions with sets of push-ups.

As a law professor and writer with a long-standing interest in the blurry boundaries between war and “not war,” my experiences with the paramilitary aspects of the D.C. police academy—and, later, my experiences as a reserve police officer on patrol in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—were part of my research. (My next book, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, is based on my experiences as a D.C. reserve officer.) But even as a recruit with a quasi-anthropological perspective, I found the academy more than a little intimidating. I don’t think I’ve been yelled at as much since high-school gym class more than three decades ago.

The nation is now debating how to “fix” American policing, and much of the criticism of current police practices relates to the paramilitary aspects of policing. It’s an important critique, but one that often focuses narrowly on police uniforms, weapons, and equipment, rather than on underlying issues of organizational culture and structure. If we want to change policing, we need to also turn the spotlight onto police academies, where new recruits are first inculcated into the folkways of their profession.

It’s not hard to see the link between paramilitary police training and the abuses motivating the past several weeks’ protests. When police recruits are belittled by their instructors and ordered to refrain from responses other than “Yes, Sir!,” they may learn stoicism—but they may also learn that mocking and bellowing orders at those with less power are acceptable actions. When recruits are ordered to do push-ups to the point of exhaustion because their boots weren’t properly polished, they may learn the value of attention to detail—but they may also conclude that the infliction of pain is an appropriate response to even the most trivial infractions.

Many police recruits enter the academy as idealists, but this kind of training turns them into cynics, even before their first day on patrol. And although most police officers will go through their entire careers without ever firing their weapons, others will inevitably get the wrong lessons from their paramilitary training, and end up like the fired Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin.

D.C.’s police academy has changed a lot in the short time since I graduated, and even in 2016, it was relatively relaxed compared with the rigid spit-and-polish atmosphere that prevails in many other training programs. The majority of law-enforcement academies in the United States are loosely modeled on military boot camps. Proponents of this approach argue that cops are a lot like soldiers: They have to follow orders regardless of their personal feelings; they have to run toward gunfire, not away from it; and they have to remain cool and professional in the face of chaos, threats, and harassment. In this view, paramilitary training takes undisciplined young recruits and turns them into lean, mean fighting machines, ready to handle the rigors of street patrol.

In most police departments, paramilitary traditions extend well beyond the academy. Senior police officials commonly refer to patrol officers as “troops,” chain of command is rigidly enforced, and it’s undeniably true that many departments have made enthusiastic use of federal authorities such as the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, which provides surplus military equipment—including armored vehicles and grenade launchers—to domestic law-enforcement agencies. (Since its inception, the program has transferred more than $7 billion worth of military equipment to more than 8,000 U.S. law-enforcement agencies; ironically, small-town and rural agencies, rather than large city departments, have been most likely to request heavy equipment such as mine-resistant vehicles.)

The paramilitary aspects of police culture are so deeply entrenched that most officers and police chiefs take them for granted, rarely questioning the need for boot polishing, drill and formations, and rigorous mandatory workouts as a central part of police training. But the paramilitary model is as pernicious as it is ubiquitous, and any meaningful approach to police transformation needs to confront it head-on.

Nothing about paramilitary policing is inevitable, and historically speaking, the vision of policing as a paramilitary enterprise is of relatively recent vintage. In early colonial America, police departments as we think of them today did not exist. Public safety was a communal responsibility, and in many New England towns, appointed sheriffs were supplemented by a town watch comprising ordinary citizens. In the frontier towns of the American West, sheriffs made do by deputizing citizens into temporary posses when needed. In the southern United States, policing was also seen as a shared public responsibility, albeit one distorted by the brutal institution of slavery: Many southern towns and counties established volunteer “slave patrols” charged with capturing runaways and returning them to their owners, dead or alive. As one slave patroller put it, his job was to “apprehend any negro whom we found from his home, and if he made any resistance, or ran from us, fire upon him immediately.” The toxic legacy of these patrols remains alive today.

In the mid-19th century, industrialization, rising income inequality, and the growth of cities led to increases in both violent crime and property crime. As communities became more populous and urbanized, the relatively informal mechanisms of social control that had prevailed in colonial America and the early years of the republic began to be perceived by elites as inadequate, and police organizations were formalized and professionalized in most major American cities. New York established its first police department in 1845, and in 1861 Washington, D.C., followed suit with the creation of the Metropolitan Police Department. Policing quickly ceased to be viewed as a collective obligation and became, instead, the work of a permanent body of paid specialists.

From their inception, and in contrast to earlier models of law enforcement, these newly created police departments in the 19th century were paramilitary in nature. In Washington, D.C., for instance, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that General George B. McClellan be consulted on the appointment of the first police superintendent. Ultimately, William Webb, a major in the D.C. militia, was chosen, and Webb quickly recruited several other Union soldiers into the department’s ranks.

America’s new police departments adopted military-style titles, rank structures, and uniforms. In Los Angeles, for instance, the first citywide law-enforcement officers, the Los Angeles Rangers, were citizen volunteers authorized by the city council in 1853; they wore no uniforms, but sported white ribbons identifying them as “city police.” By 1869, however, the city had hired its first paid professional police, kitting them out in surplus Union Army uniforms, and as in D.C., many early recruits came from a military background. (The path from military service to law enforcement remains well trod; currently, almost 20 percent of police officers are military veterans, although veterans make up just 6 percent of the general population).

Today, a century and a half after the emergence of professional police organizations, American policing is in crisis. As the protesters pouring into the streets are reminding the nation, police in the United States fatally shoot roughly 1,000 people a year, a per capita rate of violence unparalleled in other democratic countries.* Relative to their representation in the overall population, a disproportionate number of those killed by U.S. police have been black- or brown-skinned.

Police killings are of course not the only fuel for the mass protests. Beyond the deaths of Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor lie countless other large and small indignities—the massive stop-and-frisk program practiced by the NYPD until a court order declared it unconstitutional, the needlessly aggressive execution of warrants—that also fall most heavily on people of color and the poor.

But many of the most egregious police abuses are avoidable, and the anger over them has created an opportunity for real police reform. The nation must jettison paramilitary approaches to policing. That means moving beyond shallow critiques of “police militarization,” most of which focus narrowly on federal programs allowing the transfer of military equipment to police, and looking at subtler and more entrenched aspects of police culture as well.

To be sure, federal military-surplus transfers like those through the Defense Department’s 1033 Program do little good, and much harm: Police departments obtaining used Army filing cabinets at cost isn’t cause for concern, but there’s no earthly reason for small-town cops to wear military fatigues, ride around in mine-resistant Humvees, or carry bayonets. Studies suggest that police departments that receive such equipment see no measurable improvement in officer safety or crime rates, but greater quantities do seem to correlate with higher rates of officer-involved shootings and reduced public trust.

Federal programs that allow the provision of military equipment to domestic police departments are only part of the problem, however. Although tightening the restrictions on such programs would be a good first step, the training that police recruits go through must also be reformed.

We’re living in a dark moment: President Donald Trump’s threat to send in active-duty federal troops to quell protests further blurred the line between policing and the military. But some hopeful signs have emerged.

For one, some progressive police leaders are questioning the value of paramilitary academies. In Washington State, for instance, former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, now the head of the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, has pioneered an academy-training approach centered on a vision of police as guardians, not warriors. Rahr calls her training method “LEED,” for “Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity.” Instead of an emphasis on yelling and standing at attention, her recruits are trained to engage others in courteous conversation, and are evaluated during role-play exercises on their ability to listen, show empathy, explain their actions, de-escalate tense situations, and leave everyone they encounter “with their dignity intact.”

In another hopeful sign, Washington, D.C., police training is also moving in the right direction. The Metropolitan Police Department has brought civilian teachers and adult-learning specialists into many senior police-academy positions, instead of staffing the academy solely with sworn officers. More and more, D.C. police recruits are being encouraged to question and debate policies instead of just memorizing them, and the academy’s commander has welcomed a crucial range of diverse voices into the recruit curriculum.

The department has also partnered with several local universities, including Georgetown, where I teach and co-direct the Innovative Policing Program, to develop programs designed to push both recruits and more experienced officers to critically engage with the history and practices of their profession. All officers now visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and spend a day discussing the role of police officers in perpetuating—or ending—atrocities and injustice. Meanwhile, a select group of young D.C. officers take part in the Georgetown program’s Police for Tomorrow Fellowship. The fellows participate in intensive workshops on many of the toughest and most controversial issues in policing, including race and the legacy of racial discrimination, over-criminalization, alternatives to arrest, poverty, addiction, and homelessness. Officers visit prisons and homeless shelters and meet with local teens, and each fellow undertakes a capstone community project. In New Orleans, a similar fellowship program for young police officers, the Crescent City Corps, launched in 2019.

Such programs can be transformative. In D.C., many of the young officers who go through these programs credit them with changing how the officers think about their role—and their thoughtful feedback has helped fuel internal changes within the department, including some recent changes at the police academy itself. Last October, the Metropolitan Police Department, the New Orleans Police Department, and Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program teamed up to host a national gathering of police-academy directors from more than 20 major police departments. First up on the group’s agenda: considering alternatives to paramilitary approaches to police training. The topic was controversial, and the discussion is continuing, but it was a start.

A diverse, democratic society needs police officers who engage thoughtfully with their profession’s troubled history and value meaningful, equitable interactions with members of the communities they serve. If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s this: America needs brave, empathetic guardians—not martinets in shiny boots.


* This article previously stated that roughly 1,000 people are killed by American police each year. In fact, this is the number of people who are fatally shot by police.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

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