Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.

Crimes of Violence

Police Culture: The Long Road From Warriors to Guardians

Is military culture a factor in the recent police killings?

Posted Jun 10, 2020

The whole world watched the horrific video of the white police officer pressing his knee into the neck of George Floyd. “I can’t breathe” and “Mamma, Mamma” were his last words. Three other officers stood by and did nothing.

It didn’t take long for the media images that were played over and over to spur a national uprising. The first night, people of all races flooded the streets in Minneapolis. The next day, Americans emerged from the coronavirus lockdown to fill the streets of cities everywhere with marches and chants of “Black Lives Matter.” In Washington, D.C., police in riot gear fired tear gas and stun grenades at peaceful demonstrators who carried signs protesting police violence. Militarized police were seen on TV roughing up protesters and reporters; some individuals in uniform, however, knelt in solidarity with the crowd.

Protests and riots have erupted periodically in response to similar incidents of police brutality captured on film. In a country where around 1,000 people are killed by police each year, with black rates two-and-a-half to three times as high as white rates, such outbursts are understandable. (See the Washington Post investigation by Berman et al., 2020.) The typical case that led to rioting involved the shooting of a black man who was unarmed. The rioting, in turn, led to a negative public reaction. This time, however, as peaceful demonstrations dominated the scene, the media response presented images of youths sweeping glass off the streets the morning after, and grieving for the deaths of Floyd and of other men in custody (as well as at least two innocent black women shot in their homes by police). Meanwhile, the continuing spectacle of police using military-style force in the nation’s capital shocked viewers who watched on TV, but these strong-arm tactics have commonly been used in times of urban social unrest.

What is different in these protests is not only that they are taking place during a pandemic, but the sheer numbers of protesters out on the street day and night. The interracial nature of the protesters is striking as well. Many of those holding up signs are of college age, but all generations are represented. Another aspect of the 2020 protests is that the unruly, destructive elements fell to the wayside as peaceful demonstrations took over. The marchers were joined by community leaders including politicians, lawyers, and health professionals. A third distinction of this anti-policing protest movement was the expansion of demands beyond justice concerning one specific event into areas of systemic reform.  

The recent killings of black suspects and the ready use of weapons of war against protesters can be seen in historical context. Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko says it all. The police militarization that we see today—the use of military vehicles, artillery, and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams—has its origins in the “wars” on crime, drugs, and terror. The use of the war metaphor is consistent with awarding police departments with battle gear and other equipment as well as hand-me-downs from the army. Carrying the armaments of soldiers encourages the police to act like soldiers. Then police training provides a boot-camp-like experience with an emphasis on weaponry and drills in using them.

The focus on militarization tends to stress the need to stop the flow of weapons to police departments while overlooking the recruitment process. This is probably related to a desire by the public and Congress to reward veterans for their service by helping them get civilian jobs. For employment in law enforcement, veterans who received an honorable discharge are awarded an extra five points on the entrance exam while disabled veterans receive 10. The Justice Department, which expanded the recruitment of veterans under both the Obama and Trump administrations, has been reluctant to support research on the impact of military training and experience on policing behavior.

We need to focus on police hiring. Instead of giving bonus points automatically to veterans, why not give a preference to the hiring of minorities and women? Authoritarian types should be avoided through the assessment of personality and backgrounds.

Military training for fighting enemies, not to mention experience in combat, may not be the best training for policing the streets. Consider what such training entails. As is stated on the site military.com, a recent survey of law enforcement agencies found that:

  • Service members and veterans accounted for nearly one in five sworn officers at agencies and departments. Nearly every agency reported having a current or former service member or military spouse as a senior leader.
  • On average, for every $10 departments spent on recruiting, nearly $1 was dedicated to military and veteran candidates. More than 70 percent of responding agencies reported attending military-specific job fairs in the past year, with an average of about 11 per agency.
  • Roughly half of the agencies have a veteran hiring preference, through extra points on entry exams or other means.

A commanding officer from Tucson, Arizona cited in the article stated that attracting and retaining service veterans is a high priority for the department: "We’ve just found that military people really come to the table with the mindset and the skill set to be really highly successful in roles in law enforcement."

According to Military.com, veterans are attracted to law enforcement because the structure of a police force is compatible with that of the military, and the personality traits required for one are the same as for the other. Law enforcement agencies actively seek veterans, according to this source, for among them, the fact that police chiefs often come from military backgrounds themselves as do others at the highest ranks. Balko faults recruitment videos that emphasize the thrilling aspects of police work that seem to reinforce the attraction of certain personality types to law enforcement.

An article on college programs for veterans titled “Transitioning from Military Service to Law Enforcement” describes policing as a natural fit for a veteran. Realistically, though, this same article welcoming former servicemen and women into its program contains a cautionary note. If the applicant is a combat veteran, it warns, he or she is in a category of people who are uniquely at risk of having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems. Individuals with such problems are urged to get the mental health care they need to better serve the community.  

Because of the Americans With Disabilities Act, police departments cannot disqualify applicants for simply having a PTSD diagnosis or other mental health disorder. In fact, veterans with disabilities receive extra bonus points over veterans without disabilities in hiring. Psychological screening is important for all candidates for jobs in law enforcement (and corrections), and increasingly, departments are using it. This is done in recognition of the unique challenges of police work and of the risks of excessive use of force officers trained for the battlefield and dealing with the enemy.  

Another major problem with veteran job preference is that it lifts veterans above other applicants who might have qualifications or experience more relevant to the job. Today’s police departments have needs related to racial or ethnic identity, language fluency, women’s issues, and/or residence in the community.

As quoted in the Marshall Project, then Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said that although many veterans perform well on the job, she feels constrained by the military preference which makes it hard to change the culture of policing. “I want to attract people with very different skill sets,” she says. “We are facing complicated issues with people who are in crisis every day. Why wouldn’t I want people who majored in human services? Or psychology or sociology?”

Police culture favors the use of physical force when confronted, male bonding, a code of silence even in the face of wrongdoing, a fascination with weaponry, and an “us versus them” mentality. A refusal to admit weakness holds officers back from receiving mental health treatment when needed. The powerful police union, aptly called the Fraternal Order of Police, is led by older white men, vigorously opposes progressive change, and is protective of officers charged with abuse of suspects or with a history of domestic violence.  

Given the strength of the police union and the political support of veterans, the road toward reshaping police culture will be a long one. Happily, calls for structural change have never been so loud. “I can’t breathe” has become the rallying cry of protests across the U.S. and around the world. The drive for real systemic change is in the wind. Reformers would do well to heed the words of the former Seattle police chief who had as her aim to move police and correctional officers from “warriors to guardians.”


Balko, R. (2013). Rise of the warrior cop: The militarization of America's police forces. New York: Public Affairs. 

Berman, M., Sullivan, J., et al. (2020, June 8). Protests spread over police shooting. Washington Post. Retrieved from  https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings

The Best Schools Staff (2020, March 23). Transitioning from military service to law enforcement. Retrieved from https://thebestschools.org/resources/military-law-enforcement/

Weichselbaum, S., & Schwartzapfel, B. (2017). When warriors put on the badge. The Marshall project. Retrieved from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/03/30/when-warriors-put-on-the-badge