Military-style training

As of 2016, approximately 18,000 state and local police agencies existed in the U.S. Given the absence of national training standards, most states establish training guidelines through a state training board, called a Peace Officer Standards and Training board in most states. A governor appoints individuals, typically former cops, current officers, legal experts, and the occasional criminal justice advocate,  to sit on the POST board to set the minimum educational requirements for a prospective officer to be certified. In states lacking a POST board, municipalities determine the training requirements for certification in their region. Regardless of the existence of a POST board or not, local police forces choose the academy where recruits are trained. In 2013, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that state POST agencies operated only 5% of academies. Nearly half of academies were based at academic institutions (47%), municipal departments operated a fifth of academies (20%), and the remaining trainings were led by sheriff’s offices (10%) and state police or highway patrol agencies (6%)


Policing in the U.S. varies not only by location, but by training focus. In the same Bureau of Justice Statistics report, researchers found that “nearly 1 in 4 academies (23%) reported their training environment was all or mostly stress-oriented.” Stress-oriented training revolves around military training models and involves “intensive physical demands and psychological pressure.” The majority of academies operated by state and local police departments used training models that were more stress than non-stress oriented.

Prior to the 1980s, police training was not synonymous with military-style training. However, as detailed in the SWAT team article, circumstances in the 1970s encouraged police departments to work closely with the US Army and Navy to develop crisis response teams, leading to an integration of militaristic culture in training programs. Military equipment programs, detailed in the 1033 article, explicitly linked police departments with military gear. The expansion of the War on Drugs under President Reagan elevated police officers to be "the real front-line soldiers in the war on crime." Rhetoric and increased funding in the 80s and 90s instigated a need for training programs that encouraged officers to see themselves not just as protectors of private property, but as warriors in the fight against bad actors. 


An extreme version of this style of training comes from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the self-proclaimed founder of the training style of "killology." Grossman, a former Army Ranger who has trained officers in all 50 states since he started his own company in 1997, emphasizes that police officers are warrior figures who should be prepared to fight violence with superior, occasionally fatal, violence. In his eyes, preparing police officers to kill allows them to be more responsive in the field, should a violent occasion arise. Grossman’s training style came under fire in 2017 after investigations in the police shooting of Philando Castille uncovered that the officer who shot Castille attended “The Bulletproof Warrior” training offered by Grossman and a colleague. 

Even more traditional police training programs integrate militaristic culture. Senior officers yell orders at "troops" (a.k.a. recruits) during training seminars, members of SWAT units may train directly with military personnel, and twenty percent of police officers are military veterans, whose mannerisms and experiences deepen the cultural link between the military and the police. Furthermore, training topics focus primarily on weapon skills and use of force tactics. A 2016 national study of the training of 135,000 recruits across 664 local police academies found that, on average, self-defense and firearm training encompassed 20% of training hours while topics like domestic violence (1.5%), mental illness (1.2%), and mediation and conflict management (1%) received comparatively little.


In the past few decades, several private and state-level training academies have transitioned away from militarized policing modules. For example, police officers trained by the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission learn to “Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity” or LEED. Recruits engage in conversation and role-play real life situations that underscore the value of listening, showing empathy, and de-escalating a situation. The Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission is one of many police departments that have received training from Blue Courage—a private training organization started in the early 2000s by a veteran Chicago police officer who believes police must be trained as empathetic human beings to best serve their communities. Charles Ramsey, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and co-chair of President Obama’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing, noted that “if Blue Courage was adopted by law-enforcement agencies worldwide, we would have less burnout; less escalation of force; and greater respect for the professionals that serve our communities. It is not the total solution, but it is close.” 

By de-emphasizing the fear mongering element of militarized policing, these training programs prepare police officers for the bulk of their police work—addressing non-violent calls and supporting their communities.

Sources (click to expand)

“Blue Courage.” International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training. 

Karma, Roge. “We train police to be warriors— and then send them out to be social workers.” Vox. July 31, 2020. 

Kraska, Peter. “Militarization and Policing—  Its Relevance to 21st Century Police.” Oxford University Press. 2007. 

McGill, Margaret Harding and Erica Pandey. “America’s broken system of training cops.” Politics and Policy, Axios. June 7, 2020. 

Reaves, Brian. “State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2013.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, US Department of Justice. July 2016. 

Schatz, Brian. “‘Are You Prepared to Kill Somebody?’ A Day With One of America’s Most Popular Police Trainers.” Crime and Justice Quarterly Issue, Mother Jones. April 2017.