Demilitarization of Police Means Disrupting the Army-to-Police Pipeline

Demilitarizing police is an urgent demand in this moment. But with the police force and army so entwined — both in terms of personnel and weaponry — demilitarization won’t be easy.

A person holds flowers as demonstrators clash with police near the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct shortly after midnight on June 8, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder / Getty

Calls for the demilitarization of police have gained new prominence in the light of the latest wave of anti-police brutality protests sweeping the United States. But in a country where one-fifth of the police force is ex-military — including George Floyd’s killer in Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, and Robert McCabe, one of the two officers responsible for knocking down Martin Gugino, the seventy-five-year-old protester in Buffalo — demilitarization won’t come easy.

Many police officers are themselves former members of the military who picked up a career in policing after returning from war zones. But this isn’t the only problem. Loaded down with cast-off gear from the Pentagon — body armor, bayonets, automatic rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and surveillance drones — police officers are more likely to regard peaceful protestors as enemy combatants, particularly when the Pentagon’s own top official refers to their protest scenes as “battlespace.”

But getting police officers out of the business of being an occupying military force —whether perpetually or in times of crisis — will also require much closer screening of job applicants who are veterans and elimination of their favored treatment in police department hiring.

A Popular Career Choice

Policing is the third most common occupation for men and women who served in the military. It is an option widely encouraged by career counselors and veterans’ organizations like the American Legion.  As a result, several hundred thousand veterans are now wearing a badge of some sort. Though veterans comprise just 6 percent of the US population, veterans now working in law enforcement number 19 percent of the total force. Their disproportionate representation is due, in part, to preferential hiring requirements, mandated by state or federal law. In addition, under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice provided local police departments with tens of millions of dollars to fund veterans-only positions.

As noted by the Marshall Project in its 2017 report, “When Warriors Put On the Badge,” this combination of hiring preferences and special funding has made it harder to “build police forces that resemble and understand diverse communities.” The beneficiaries have been disproportionately white, because 60 percent of all enlisted men and women are not people of color.

Justice Department officials, particularly under President Donald Trump, have shown little interest in tracking the later job performance of recently hired veterans or how their military background might affect their behavior vis-à-vis the public. As former Department of Justice (DOJ) official Ronald Davis put it in his response to the Marshall Project’s report, “I reject the notion that a returning veteran, who has seen combat, should cause concern for a police chief. I would even hire more if I could.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police did its own report in 2009, which raised some concerns about “the integration of military personnel” into law enforcement in the wake of 9/11. According to this study, “veterans returning from the Vietnam War could easily distinguish their combat environment — mostly jungle, farm, or open terrain — from their urban or suburban policing environment. In the case of returning combat veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan, their combat environment and their policing environments may appear surprisingly similar.” The report warned that past deployments in the Middle East “may cause returning officers to mistakenly blur the lines between military combat situations and civilian crime situations, resulting in inappropriate decisions and actions, particularly in the use of less lethal or lethal force.”

Cosponsored by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the report also noted that combat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related “depression, anger, withdrawal, and family issues” may have “a low tolerance for civilian complaints” and greater propensity for the “inappropriate use of force.” Some police chiefs interviewed reported that veterans under their command came back “ill prepared for the civilian world” because their PTSD left them with “exaggerated survival instincts.”

More Involved in Shootings

Veterans of, course, got high marks for their physical fitness, weapons-handling experience, habituation to discipline, and leadership qualities. Yet the report notes that some had trouble “readjusting to receiving rather than giving orders, trusting others, and changing the rules of engagement.” According to 14 percent of chiefs surveyed, more citizen complaints are reported against veteran officers than other officers, 28 percent reported psychological issues, and 10 percent saw excessive violence.

A study by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health that focused on the Dallas Police Department found that officers with military experience used their guns while on duty more than nonveterans. During a ten-year period, nearly one-third of all 516 cops involved in a shooting incident were veterans. Those who had been deployed overseas were nearly three times as likely to have fired their weapon; those who had not been deployed were still twice as likely to be involved in a shooting. The study concluded that some veterans employed by the Dallas police department lacked “critical thinking skills” when confronted with “high stress scenarios.”

Similar findings were reported by the Marshall Project after it studied use-of-force complaints and fatal police shootings in several cities. In Boston and Miami, officers with military experience generated more civilian complaints of excessive force. Nearly one-third of the Albuquerque officers involved in a total of thirty-five fatal shootings between January 2010 and April 2014 were veterans. One of the officers sued after killing an unarmed motorist was an Iraq War veteran whose PTSD caused flashbacks, nightmares, and blackouts. Nevertheless, as the Marshall Project discovered, he was “assigned to patrol a high-crime area of town known as ‘the War Zone.’”

Marshall Project researchers cited the need for clear and consistent police department policies to “evaluate employees’ mental and physical fitness . . . to ensure public safety and guarantee a stable, reliable, and productive workforce.” Yet police department screening practices are far from standardized or effective. “Some agencies employ the use of administrative interviews and psychological evaluations to assess how veteran officers will perform the essential functions of their position, while other agencies revert to their department medical officer, or lack any policy at all.”

Another Hazardous Occupation

A major cause for concern is that veterans who end up in policing are even more vulnerable to its well-known occupational hazards, involving alcohol or drug abuse and attempted suicide. As Blue Health, a mental health advocacy group for police officers and their families, reported in January, far more cops died by their own hand (228) last year than were killed in the line of duty (132).

One of the many veterans that we have interviewed for a forthcoming book is a former deputy sheriff who returned from Iraq with severe PTSD. After his wife threatened to leave him unless he gave up his new career, he sought residential treatment twice and was finally forced to choose between his family and his job, which left him angry, irritable, and often volatile. “I don’t like gray areas,” he confessed. “If I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound. What that means is I can play cop, or I can play family man.” With vocational rehabilitation help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), he became a skilled construction worker instead.

Other veterans, well known for their criticism of “forever wars” and the harm they’ve done to ordinary soldiers, are joining the fight against militarization of public safety. Common Defense, the progressive veterans’ group, has announced the launch of a “No War In Our Streets” campaign. Among those involved is Kyle Bibby, a former Marine Corps infantry officer, Annapolis graduate, and co-founder of the Black Veterans Project. According to Bibby, who served in Afghanistan, veterans have unique credibility as critics of putting of $7 billion worth of military hardware in the hands of local police departments. “It was our equipment first,” he says. “We understand it better than the police do … It’s important that we have veterans ready to stand up and say: ‘These weapons need to go.’”

Tougher to tackle is the issue of ex-military personnel being over-represented in the ranks of domestic law enforcers. When you leave the service, says Danny Sjursen, a West Point graduate who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, “there’s no de-programming…They just load you up on meds and then you go straight to the police academy.” According to Sjursen, “military-style of policing is based on notion that high-crime areas should be treated like occupied countries.” So the “military-to-police pipeline” increases the chances “that a guy comes back to Baltimore, Camden, or Detroit and functions the same way we did when occupying Kabul or Baghdad.”

Among those also at risk when that happens are fellow veterans; since 2018, at least six African-Americans who served in the military have died in police shootings, including a troubled young Air Force veteran killed in Indianapolis last month.

Retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, a distinguished military historian who served in Vietnam, argues that, in the past, it might have made “all the sense in the world for us to vector vets toward the police force.” But that was before the post 9/11 generation of veterans returned home with such high rates of PTSD, substance abuse, and suicide. “To the extent that we’ve got a bunch of damaged young people,” Bacevich says, “then maybe the last thing we want to do is put them in a job where they carry a gun in an environment that’s going to make things worse.”