If policing is to change, the spotlight must turn toward police academies, where new recruits are first inculcated into the folkways of their profession.
Rosa Brooks Georgetown University law professor
When I entered the Washington, D.C., police academy in 2016 as a recruit officer in the district’s volunteer police reserve corps, I quickly discovered that I was joining a paramilitary organization. My classmates and I practiced drill and formation, stood at attention when senior officials entered the room, and were grilled on proper boot-polishing methods. “Brilliantly shined boots are a hallmark of police uniforms,” an instructional handout informed us. “They indicate devotion to duty and attention to the smallest detail … You are required to maintain boots that are polished to a luster … In the most exceptional cases boots can be shined so that a person’s reflection may be seen in the finish.” We had instructors who rolled their eyes at this sort of thing, but we also had instructors who seemed to be channeling the Marine drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, bawling insults and punishing minor infractions with sets of push-ups.
As a law professor and writer with a long-standing interest in the blurry boundaries between war and “not war,” my experiences with the paramilitary aspects of the D.C. police academy—and, later, my experiences as a reserve police officer on patrol in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—were part of my research. (My next book, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, is based on my experiences as a D.C. reserve officer.) But even as a recruit with a quasi-anthropological perspective, I found the academy more than a little intimidating. I don’t think I’ve been yelled at as much since high-school gym class more than three decades ago.
The nation is now debating how to “fix” American policing, and much of the criticism of current police practices relates to the paramilitary aspects of policing. It’s an important critique, but one that often focuses narrowly on police uniforms, weapons, and equipment, rather than on underlying issues of organizational culture and structure. If we want to change policing, we need to also turn the spotlight onto police academies, where new recruits are first inculcated into the folkways of their profession.
It’s not hard to see the link between paramilitary police training and the abuses motivating the past several weeks’ protests. When police recruits are belittled by their instructors and ordered to refrain from responses other than “Yes, Sir!,” they may learn stoicism—but they may also learn that mocking and bellowing orders at those with less power are acceptable actions. When recruits are ordered to do push-ups to the point of exhaustion because their boots weren’t properly polished, they may learn the value of attention to detail—but they may also conclude that the infliction of pain is an appropriate response to even the most trivial infractions.
Many police recruits enter the academy as idealists, but this kind of training turns them into cynics, even before their first day on patrol. And although most police officers will go through their entire careers without ever firing their weapons, others will inevitably get the wrong lessons from their paramilitary training, and end up like the fired Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin.