How a military approach to training could improve police skills

Modern LE could learn much from how the military prepares its people to accomplish difficult tasks in challenging environments


Editor's note: Uniforms and armored vehicles aside, U.S. law enforcement has much it can learn from military-level training and tactics that could transform operations from a leadership, organizational, and officer safety standpoint. This series, "Military methodologies: Organizational and leadership lessons for LE," looks at what lessons law enforcement should take from the military experience.

By Wes Doss, PhD

When it comes to officer training, the difference between state and local LE and the military is in the organization and emphasis on training. (Photo/AF.mil)
When it comes to officer training, the difference between state and local LE and the military is in the organization and emphasis on training. (Photo/AF.mil)

The influence of the military on state and local law enforcement – referred to by some as the “militarization” of law enforcement – is a hot topic of debate among the mainstream media, local officials and community members.

Much of the discussion has been fueled by local law enforcement cost-saving access to surplus military equipment through the 1033 program for all functions of an agency, from corrections to investigations to tactical operations.

Where detractors of the 1033 program find the most traction is focusing on the elements that are visible and apt to stir up public emotion – surplus military tactical equipment and weapons.

Interestingly myriad evidence shows that law enforcement from its inception in the United States until today, has armed and equipped itself with military-grade small arms and related equipment to meet the criminal threat present for that era. Regardless of your take on the twisted and convoluted discussion around 1033, there are things that state and local agencies can take from the military beyond equipment to improve operations, chief among them are leadership development, organization and training.

Police vs. military training hours

Law enforcement academies in the U.S. can vary in duration from 90 to about 1300 hours. The disparity is usually based on minimum training standards established by the accreditation organization for the state, region or territory such as POST, TCOLE, MCOLES and FDLE.

Shorter academies often have the same curriculum demands as longer ones but are broken up due to financial issues with a portion of a cadet’s training requirements the responsibility of the employing agency.

Regardless of the length of the academy, most are based on an 8- to 10-hour work day.

After successful completion of the academy, an officer’s next step is typically field training, which can be between 250 and 480 hours of on-the-job education and evaluation with a field training officer (FTO). If an officer makes it through the FTO period, then their next training is usually the 8 to 16 hours of required annual in-service training necessary to maintain certification. Best case scenario, an officer receives 1796 hours of training. Obviously there are always members of every agency that exceed minimum required standards, but this is a simple baseline centered on what is mandated or required and, unfortunately, what is frequently attained.  

Training is very different in the military. Regardless of the branch of service, there is no 8- to 10-hour day. Training can take place at all times and frequently does.

It is common for personnel in basic training to train all day and then manage details all night until training begins the next morning.

Generally basic training or boot camp is roughly 1,500 hours of formal training based on lesson plans, with another 2,000-3,000 hours of peripheral training such as drill and ceremony, etc., in a fully immersive environment. There is up to a 20 percent attrition rate.

Even after basic training, you still have no status in the military, nor a job or career. Following basic training, depending on your contract or the needs of your branch, you attend career school or advanced individual training (AIT). Depending on your field, you could be in training for another 2,000 to 3,000 hours to be an entry-level employee in your chosen or assigned field. Some AIT programs have over a 60 percent attrition rate.

So after up to 7500+ hours of training the soldier, sailor, marine or airman is just now starting to work at an assigned unit. Once at the unit, personnel have monthly, quarterly and annual training requirements to include weapons qualifications and physical fitness tests to keep their jobs or advance in their career. 

Military LE organizations

When the media and the public discuss the “militarization” of the police, they often compare a municipal or county agency against an infantry or special operations organization. If there is to be a comparison, it should be made between military law enforcement organizations such as the Army and Marine Military Police, Air Force Security Forces, Navy law enforcement and related investigative branches like CID, NCIS and OSI.

These organizations operate in a parallel environment to their state and local counterparts. Patrol, traffic, crime prevention, investigations, 911/dispatch, corrections/confinement, SWAT, even Dare and school resource officers are routine parts of military law enforcement even with the additional responsibilities of installation security and combat operations.

The military approach to skills training

When it comes to officer training, the difference between state and local LE and the military is in the organization and emphasis on training. The military focus on training is so high that it is often considered an organization's primary responsibility when not at war with an exacting mandate that required training will occur, regardless of season, weather, heat, cold or sleep.

A typical military police company – when not in theater – works off a rotating cycle of operations, training and maintenance. A platoon or similar structure will be assigned to patrol operations for a period of 30 to 90 days. During this period, all shifts and law enforcement operations are covered around the clock. While this platoon is working, another platoon is assigned to training and during this rotational period is responsible for the preparation of all personnel from the top down and the bottom up. Another platoon would be assigned to maintenance during this period and would be responsible for the care and feeding of vehicles, weapons, sensitive equipment and all unit property. At the end of this cycle, the platoons would rotate duties and this function would be continuous throughout the life at this organization. This is a monumental difference between civilian and military law enforcement.    

When you review the differences and disparities, there is often mild backlash on the LE side. Training officers and administrators justify the level or lack of training based on the number of things a contemporary police officer must be trained in and reasonably proficient on. They speak of attempting to prioritize training so that the most critical of skills have more attention than those they see as less necessary. Typically, this manifests itself in minimized or canceled use of force and high liability programs, with focus being placed on more academic, administrative or social skills, which are not the skills cops use when under extreme duress austere conditions.

Recently I've witnessed agencies cancel a range or a DT program for mandatory sensitivity and gender awareness training. While these topics need to be presented to officers, it should not be done in place of perishable skills training.

The one set of skills the military trains on the most aren't academic or administrative agendas, but warfighting. This emphasis on mobilization, leadership, tactics and weapons isn't because the military is a throng of chest-beating warmongers, it’s because they learned the hard way that the skills that are used under arduous conditions are perishable. Military leaders know that if they fail to keep troops trained, incredibly bad things happen. Look up the history of Task Force Smith at the very onset of the Korean conflict to see how an untrained, ill-prepared occupational force stationed in Japan at the end of World War II struggled under an overwhelming and considerably better-prepared opponent. 

The military approach to leadership development

In sync with the military philosophy of training is the finely detailed and comprehensive program of leadership and individual development. The military has advanced this process so far it is amazing that more corporations don’t recruit leaders and executives directly from the military.

Upward mobility is equated with more than just increased pay; primarily it’s based on the philosophy of taking responsibility for yourself and for others that is so common in all branches of the military.

Beyond this it’s also a requirement that soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are expected to move upwardly and at reasonable intervals or face termination. This is unquestionably different from state and local law enforcement where there exists a number of career patrol officers who never tested for sergeant or corporal. While they may have a wealth of experience and knowledge, others will never benefit from that because they don’t have to promote.

Frequently you see law enforcement supervisors competing with subordinates for the credit on accomplished tasks, more concerned with their own well-being then that of their squad or team, many seeing the act of doling out discipline as a means to advance while holding others back.

In the military, a supervisor is not judged based on his or her own accomplishments, but rather from the achievements of those he or she leads. The supervisor’s role is the mission as much as it is the development of his or her people to move up and eventually take his or her place.

While most police officers won’t get a chance to go to the FBI National Academy until they are a lieutenant or higher or sit through something longer than a 24- to 40-hour management seminar, military first line supervisors must go to school to attain their rank.

In the Army, for example, step one is the month-long Warrior Leaders Course followed by the Basic Noncommissioned Officers Course (BNCOC), now called the Advanced Leaders Course, which can be up to two months long. Following BNCOC is the Advanced Noncommissioned Officers course, which is another 2- to 3-month program, and then finally there is the Sergeant Majors Academy, a full 10-month program preparing senior leaders for their roles within the organization.

What is interesting to note is attendance at these schools doesn’t absolve a soldier from all the other required skill training, physical fitness tests and weapons qualifications they are required to do, it just adds to the training that must occur.     

With over two million people in the military and a 200+ year track record, I believe there are lessons to be learned from the military, particularly with the challenges of our modern world. Just as the ongoing readiness and effectiveness of our military benefits our nation, the ongoing readiness and effectiveness of law enforcement officers benefits our communities.

The lives of law enforcement today are demanding to say the least and scrutiny from our communities has never been higher. It is during the infrequent times when high liability skills are called into play that both agency and officer are most vulnerable. A better trained and better prepared individual wields the responsibility that comes with use of force better, more confidently and much more efficiently. Modern LE could learn much from how the military prepares its people and how it leads them to accomplish difficult tasks in some of the world’s most challenging environments.


About the author
Wes Doss, PhD, is an internationally recognized firearms, tactics and use of force instructor with over 30 years of military and civilian criminal justice experience, as well as significant operational time with both military and law enforcement tactical and protective service organizations. Wes holds specialized instructor certifications from the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, Arizona POST, the Smith & Wesson Academy, the Sigarms Academy, the NRA LEAD and FEMA. Wes is the founder, president and general operating manager of Khyber Interactive Associates, LLC and the Annual 1 Inch to 100 Yards Warrior Conference. He holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration and a PhD in Psychology. He is also the author of the bestselling books “Train to Win” and “Condition to Win,” both training psychology/philosophy books focused on law enforcement and military trainers and professionals.

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