War Stories

Police Have Learned the Wrong Lessons From the Military

And ignored the right ones.

Police confronting protestors with guns pointed.
Police confront protesters in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 16. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Looking at the endless stream of videos showing the ham-fisted, violent way that police have handled protests in several cities the past few months, one conclusion is clear: The American police could learn some lessons from the U.S. military.

This seems a bizarre notion at first glance. After all, the militarization of police departments—their arsenals of surplus combat gear, which allow too many cops to fantasize that they’re Special Forces battling terrorists in Fallujah—is one cause of their increasingly aggressive behavior.

But Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, officer in D.C.’s volunteer police reserve corps, and author of the forthcoming book Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, says, “U.S. police departments have tended to import many of the wrong lessons from the military and few of the right ones.”

The Army and Marines’ experiment with counterinsurgency doctrine, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, laid out some guidelines for how to control chaotic scenes: “know your turf, know your people,” “win hearts and minds,” “sometimes the best weapons do not shoot.” The core idea was that troops’ goal is to protect the people and earn their trust. Sometimes that requires shooting bad guys, but when it doesn’t, they shouldn’t risk inflaming conflicts and alienating the population.

The doctrine turned out to be less than ideally suited to those two wars, but the principles were instilled in a generation of U.S. armed forces. John Spencer, who served as an Army company commander in Iraq and is now the chair of urban warfare studies at West Point’s Modern Warfare Institute, told me, “Those principles are so drilled into you that when you’re on the ground, dealing with the stress of controlling crowds, you don’t even think about it. They came to you automatically.” He recalled of his tours in Iraq, “I had a situation where one of my men shot someone in the back. He was immediately contained, his weapon taken, and faced an investigation. I was amazed by the other soldiers immediately shunning and outcasting him rather than trying to make some excuse for him. Values, cohesion, and group norms are vital to any police or military force.”

Paul Szoldra, a former Marine sergeant who served in Afghanistan and is now editor in chief of the military website Task & Purpose, put it more bluntly.* After a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, fired seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake, Szoldra tweeted, “If I shot a civilian 7 times in Afghanistan after he tried to get into a car, I’d be court-martialed for murder, [my] general would apologize, & my Marines would be pissed because I made their job harder.”

In an email exchange, Szoldra elaborated on the broader damage that the Blake incident can inflict: “The police are so often for many Americans their first point of exposure to government. In our hyperconnected world of social media, every American police officer is an ambassador for their roughly 700,000 colleagues. What one officer does in Minnesota can affect so many more around the country. The trust between the local government that police represent is a fragile thing. And yet the tendency for officers to rally to the side of one of their own, like the officer who knocked over a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, breaks that trust with the public and pits the government against its own citizens.”

Szoldra went on: “If the two officers in that video from Buffalo had been Marines on patrol in Afghanistan, they would have gotten the cold shoulder, and the correction to their lack of discipline would have come from within the platoon. If the incident made the news, the response from a Marine spokesman would have emphasized that this behavior went against Corps values.”

Brooks says that one problem is that, unlike the armed forces with their Uniform Code of Military Justice and their relentless training, American police departments are decentralized; there are no common standards of recruitment, training, or ethics; there is no formalized way for a police department in one city to learn lessons from a department in another city.

In any case, there aren’t many lessons learned at all. Spencer says, “Controlling crowds, whether in Baghdad or Buffalo, can be frightening, but no police forces are trained and prepared to deal with what we’re seeing now. No police forces have specialized units for riot control. Instead, they’ll deploy hundreds of police—and sometimes, unfortunately, military—who have not trained it in a long time, if at all. Nobody trains in how to cross the line from helping people to using lethal force in the most effective, responsible way possible. Nobody is trained in making decisions under this kind of stress.”

Mistakes under these circumstances are inevitable. Yet in many cities, police unions defend—rather than discipline—their least defensible actors, and they also tend to resist all criticism, especially from within. A cop who informs on another cop’s bad behavior is often scored as a snitch.

This does not mean that mobilizing troops into our cities will solve the problem. The troops don’t know the territory or the local culture; they’re not trained in American law on the use of deadly force (which is very different from military or international law).

Spencer also makes the point that not every military officer is cut out for controlling crowds, even theoretically. “When I see a line of National Guardsmen in some city,” he said, “I ask, ‘What’s his job? Is he a cook or some guy who’s been on the job for three months—or is he an experienced MP [military police] sergeant 10 years in?’ ”

Nor should any of this be read as idealizing the military. U.S. service members sometimes breach their standards and laws, and sometimes their superiors cover up their crimes. Look at My Lai or Abu Ghraib or any number of smaller-scale atrocities. But when their crimes do come to light, action is often taken; and, in any case, the standards and laws they’re breaking are clear.

This is why so many members of the armed forces were appalled when President Donald Trump pardoned three of their comrades who had been convicted, or were on trial for, war crimes. One of them, Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL chief petty officer whose abhorrent actions had been described and denounced by his own men, was hailed by Trump as a hero. Trump tweeted, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute the when they kill!” In fact, in the modern U.S. military, troops are trained as much in when not to shoot their weapons as they are in how to shoot them.

Trump seems to harbor the same attitude toward bad police—or, for that matter, toward self-styled armed militia members who say that they like Trump. In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Trump likened the police officer who shot Jacob Blake to golfers who “choke” and miss a 3-foot putt.

Trump looks at the world through his own extremely narrow lenses. He knows and cares nothing of others’ experiences, nothing of the real tensions, uncertainties, and inequities all around him—and, therefore, he can’t begin to figure out how to approach, much less solve, our problems.

Correction, Sept. 1, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Szoldra as a former Marine officer. He was a Marine sergeant.