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The Paramilitary vs. Academic Training Debate

Richard Weinblatt

Those who have been in law enforcement for a while surely remember the stressful, anxiety-provoking period of their career spent under the watchful eyes of paramilitary police academy instructors. Much like Marine Corps boot camp, the training stint evokes memories filled with physical performance, emphasis, loyalty to the organization and fear of the training authorities.

More recently, some police organizations have gone a different route where individual academic achievement is the prized trait and physical prowess and intimidation takes a backseat. Both approaches have their advocates and detractors who passionately extol the virtues of their chosen training philosophy.

Attention to the training debate is important as law enforcement has a huge impact on its communities. The 1996 edition of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics Report indicates there are 17,000 publicly funded law enforcement agencies in the United States, which employ some 828,000 full-time and 88,000 part-time employees. Operating expenditures came in at $44 billion.

The seemingly laid back, academic model of basic training has been ridiculed by many traditionalists. But an increasing number of agencies look to that method to fill their ranks with a more well-rounded officer that they say more accurately reflects the diversity of our society. Backers of the paramilitary claim the “softer” approach comes at the expense of discipline, an ability to withstand stress in the streets and a marked increase in physical cowardice.

In interviews with various experts in law enforcement training and management, a preferred method emerged which involved a blending of the two paths.

Paramilitary History of Training

This approach to basic law enforcement training has an older, more traditional anchor in the field than does the softer touch of academia. Given that historically, policing in the United States filled its ranks with rugged veterans of the armed services, it should come as no surprise. Adopted from the military model, which touts loyalty to the organization, discipline, physical and mental self-reliance and conformity, this format found a welcome home in the folds of the nation’s state police and highway patrol organizations.

The strongest proponents of the paramilitary training model are found within the nation’s 49 state police/highway patrol entities. Both the public and officers alike think of spit and polish troopers when images of rigid training are conjured up. The troopers by and large are fierce traditionalists who believe many trainers have gotten off track by “watering down” the training regime.

State police forces are filled with history. In the beginning years of the 20th century, these organizations were formed by governors and state legislators to distance law enforcers from the corruption and political interference of the urban settings of the day. Crime was increasing and the state police were seen as white knights that would go into remote locales and take down criminal adversaries. Among the first agencies to heed a governor’s battle cry was the Pennsylvania State Police.

The above mentioned Justice Department report reveals the state police organizations had operating expenditures of $3.7 billion. The group employs just 77,000 people full-time with 68% acting in an enforcement capacity.

Troopers are a small percentage of the overall number of enforcement personnel in the nation, but they represent a high profile allegiance to the paramilitary training and philosophy model. In the age of community policing, that approach has increasingly come under fire by community groups.

“There is a stereotype and people expect a certain mode from state troopers,” said Dr. James O’Keefe, director of training for the 40,000-member New York City Police Department. “Their backup is far away and they come out more aggressive to control the situation.”

Academic Philosophy

The academic basic training style is a relatively recent entrant into the training realm. Departments under budgetary constraints sought to lower their training overhead costs by recruiting from the ranks of those who already garnered their state law enforcement training certifications. Pennsylvania is famous for its Act 120 basic training, which resulted in a glut of trained law enforcement candidates. Large states like California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, have a feeder system of community colleges that provide trained rookies to agencies.

“We have 78 police academies in the state of North Carolina with 58 at local community colleges. We’re second in number only to Texas,” said David B. Cashwell, director of the North Carolina Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.

Many community colleges, seeking to be trainers of the ever-changing face of the American workplace, saw basic law enforcement training as a vehicle for fulfilling their mandate. They reacted to the perceived need as expressed by their local police chiefs and sheriffs.

Backers of the academic model see it as more amenable to the formation of a well-rounded officer used to dealing with issues of cultural diversity and individualized thinking and problem solving processes.


“We are, as are most state police, paramilitary in nature,” said Major Raymond Isley, director of training for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. “This has been so since our inception in 1929. The cadets are not here to follow their own agenda.”

New Jersey State Police Sergeant Al Della Fave also reached back to the historical perspective of his 2,700 trooper strong organization that was formed in 1921. He said the discipline structured, paramilitary style was the hallmark of the State Police Division.

“We make it tough for 22 weeks. Only the most dedicated ones who want to be troopers hang in there and graduate,” he said.

It has a side function as another screening tool. The department loses 25% of the academy roster that ranges from a state funding dictated low of 50 cadets to a high of 250. Many drop out within the first two weeks due to injuries.

Many military veterans shaped the earlier days of the New Jersey State Police. Della Fave said formerly some 80% of newly minted troopers had military service in their experiential armory whereas modern recruit armed services stints have gone down to the 25% level.

Police training expert and a founder of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET), Ed Nowicki acknowledged the problem with many young people in academic police training programs today.

“Some young people do not understand what responsibility is. Before, military service ingrained a sense of duty and responsibility,” lamented Nowicki who runs police training at the Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin.

Nowicki wages a constant battle with students regarding tardiness. “I drive 50 miles to the academy through winter storms and I’m never late. I tell students that as officers, they have to make it to work on time. Police make house calls no matter what the weather is.” He explained it’s a challenge for police trainers to do the job that it takes to produce quality officers.

“You’re trying to re-do in a matter of months what took 20 to 25 years to do,” he said

“We make it so that they don’t go home to Mommy,” said Della Fave of the troopers’ residential academy setting. “Their actions are dictated from the time they get up at 6:30 am until lights out.”

“It takes a special person who can build values and self-worth, while not turning the student off,” commented Cashwell from his office in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Isley pointed out that many aspiring troopers come to the agency with little real life experience. He said the rigorous training is intended to instill a sense of discipline. Discipline in the harder core academy settings is rationalized on the premise that people on the streets will push more than any yelling instructor can.

“Yes, policing is stressful. Academies have a built-in artificial stress. You have to push people’s envelope,” said Joe Polisar, chief of the Garden Grove, California, Police Department and a rising vice president in the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

The effects officers have on the streets are keenly felt by the public they police. Changes in policing styles and orientation are often manifested in the academies before they are noticed on patrol.

“In Houston, before we started community policing, the police academy was revamped. That is how the corporate culture started to change,” recalled O’Keefe who served as a Houston police officer before taking the helm of the NYPD’s training apparatus. The agency graduates 5,000 new police officers annually.

O’Keefe agrees that discipline is a necessary component of police academy training. He said officers need to understand the importance of rank and organizational cohesion. But he cautioned that academy instructors in a position of power who yell and scream at cadets lead those officers to do the same to members of the public.

Us vs. Them

Laura Goodman-Brown, Ombudsman for Crime Victims for Minnesota and president of the International Association of Women Police, is one law enforcement leader who thinks the academic model is far more preferable.

“The military style of training produces an officer who is more rigid and less approachable,” she said. The former Minneapolis police sergeant and Ramsey County, Minnesota deputy sheriff, added that the military style creates an “us versus them mentality.”

“I went through the military type training and we were more of an occupying force in the community,” Nowicki said recalling when he started as a Chicago police officer in 1968. He said much of the distance arose from supervisors’ fear that friendliness opened up officersto graft and corruption.

Goodman-Brown and others decry the trooper style of training as akin to producing robots.

“At agencies like the St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department, I get strongdialogue and discussions. The officers think about what we talk about and there is a more human feel in the class,” she said.

She contrasted the city officer classes with those she conducts with troopers. “I don’t get the same feeling. With the State Patrol, they have shaved heads and live on site. There is silence in the room and everything is tentative. We’re creating robots, not people.”

Goodman-Brown, who went through her first training class in 1979, said the image of the paramilitary trained enforcers among us creates a communications barrier.

“What child or rape victim is going to open up to this type of officer? People need to feel its OK to come to you,” she said.

Not so, counters the trooper tooters. “Those who think troopers are robots do not know troopers,” objected Isley from his office at the Training Academy in Raleigh, NC. “We turn out responsible, well-trained and mature individuals.”

Isley explained the North Carolina State Highway Patrol once tested out a more relaxed version of its infamous training academy. “In excess of 50% failed in the field after leaving the training academy and cost the tax payers a lot of money,” he said. The traditional route produces a failure rate of around 21%, which is incurred at the “front end” of the training process prior to a large expenditure on the recruit.

Delia Fave said the New Jersey State Police stresses community relations and encourages its troopers to act in a manner that reflects positively on the agency.

Trooper Academics

Isley said the North Carolina Highway Patrol is academically rigid as well as physically tough. It requires constitutional law and all other major academic blocks to be passed.

The New Jersey State Police boasted of the strong academic trail they have blazed in their bid to mold the trooper of the future. The force now has a minimum of a bachelor’s degree as the entrance ticket into the elite French blue uniform clad group.

“The bachelor’s degree requirement, together with the 20 to 22 weeks of training, helps make a well-rounded individual. The training is accredited through Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey,” beamed a proud Delia Fave who served as an academy instructor forsix years.

O’Keefe, a highly educated police administrator, likes the idea of educated officers.

“We do a lot of educating and we do a lot of training. People with expanding minds, however, do not react well to ‘shut up and do 25 push ups,’” he said.

Goodman-Brown reflected the common consensus that an educated officer is less likely to be abusive and more likely to de-escalate volatile situations.

Nowicki said he had an affinity for educated officers as well. He wants to see more blending of the two as an integral program.

“In Wisconsin, like Minnesota, to achieve an officer’s license, we have a two tier approach. It involves an associates degree along with an academy oriented skills building component,” he said.

Individualized Decision Making

The two polarized camps differed on the best route to prepare law enforcers for a critical performance area: fast but deliberate decision-making. They did all agree this is a crucial area for officers to have mastered.

“When they’re out on their own, they need to have the discipline and confidence to carry out a task whether faced with normal or emergency situations,” Isley said.

Nowicki agreed the well-known reputation of trooper tenacity helps in exigent circumstances. “In an emergency, we want Robocop to come to our rescue. However, true emergencies do not happen very often,” he said.

Small town police chief Rick Henry thought the emphasis needed to be shifted in paramilitary academies to encourage decision-making.

“The schools need to be geared towards individualized thinking and problem solving. They need to be less geared towards whether the officer has facial hair,” said Chief Henry who heads the five officer Wingate Police Department in North Carolina. “Officers have to think on their feet, alone, especially in a small municipal police department.”

Some of those interviewed feared the regimented existence of the stereotypical paramilitary academies removed all onus of individual decision-making. That, along with questioning of authority when it is present, created concern.

“What is the officer going to do when they can’t go through three levels of supervisor to get a problem solved,” asked Goodman-Brown. “It is true that better educated officers are more likely to question authority, orders and antiquated policies. Many supervisors do not have higher education and they don’t like the questioning.”

Nowicki decried the rigid approach the philosophy dictates regarding taking police action. “There is a human tendency not to take enforcement action and to dictate it doesn’t work. Could I write my mother a ticket? Absolutely not. The action needs to be discretionary,” he said.

The Blend

Ultimately, it seemed many of those interviewed believed a more moderate approach was the more prudent and socially responsive route to go.

“A more middle of the road approach is being taken by departments which has been fueled by community policing,” said O’Keefe.

“Our job is to prepare someone to police a free society; not to be occupying neighborhoods. In policing, we sometimes overstate the connection between the military and the police. I’m training people to go to Greenwich Village, not Kosovo,” O’Keefe said.

Polisar, former chief of the 900+ officer Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Department, said that while he believes stress is needed in academies, he “does not advocate abuse or cursing people out.” A happy medium can be achieved.

Goodman-Brown pointed once again to the St. Paul Police Department as an example of the right way to proceed.

“There is a quasi-military ‘yes, sir and no, sir’ orientation. But it’s more community oriented,” she said. She did state she felt the experience of the veteran officer in the field is not to be ignored and serves as a necessary bridge for the rookie officer.

Nowicki said the key is to blend the two environments by giving orders but letting people know why those orders were important. “In policing, you’re a loner, but you’re still part of the team. Give them the marching orders and tell them you are accountable for reasonable solutions. The key here is reasonable,” he said.

Nowicki elaborated that blending a good administrative focus with clear departmental mandates steers the officer to reasonable decisions on a self-sufficient basis.

Like many things in life, it seems the trend toward a blend of the two philosophies of training is emerging. Community policing and the traditional orientation of law enforcement have met and are poised to take officers and the public into the next century.

  • Swat_logo_max50


    over 4 years ago


    I agree that there must be a middle ground on this issue. Since we are in the business of training police officers and not soldiers, not all the "boot camp" methods are going to work since the end result sought is different. We need officers that are trained to think and intelligently apply the law to situations on the street. I must state that I have been working at PD's since I was 19 so I was not in the military. That said, I think, based on what those who were with me in the academy and that I work with that were in the service, policing is a different animal with some similar traits. Unlike the military, police are more expected to work independently and solve problems with minimal supervisory input at the actual scenes as a whole. Sure, there is a time to call the Sgt, Lt, whatever for help, but generally, they are expected to police an area assigned to them in the best way they know how and as long as they pull their weight and do their jobs in a legal and ethical manner, the means are subjective. Take that and compare to the military where there is always someone in charge telling you what to do, when and how. Squad leaders, NCO's, officers, etc, are there with them, if not, if they are working as a special ops team or whatever, someone above them wrote an op order they are executing and rest assured someone higher than them somewhere is watching. They can call for additional assets as needed, more manpower, artillery or air support, etc that someone will either approve or deny. Cops, in my experience, will not get that type of constant oversight (hopefully) from their agency. Unless something goes wrong, someone complains, or there is some external influence, as long as the call got handled, the Sgt's likely could care less.

    I don’t think that the whole marching and saluting idea fits well into many police academy settings. We did it in mine, every morning, and I can honestly tell you the only time I have ever saluted was either at the flag in a public ceremony of some sort while I was at in uniform, or at the funeral of a fellow officer. I have never had to, nor been expected to, salute my Chief, Captain, Lt, Sgt, Cpl, OIC or whatever. I guess it would depend on the culture of your agency. If you walk around the PD/SO/Barracks snapping to when the boss comes into briefing and saluting when they call you in to the office, so be it. I just know I have never worked anywhere that was that way, but we did that every single day in the academy. Then, as soon as we graduated and went off in the field training, one of the first things that got "deprogrammed" was the "sir, yes sir" responses and all that. I agree that it did serve a purpose in instilling discipline into some people that previously had none. I had 2 1/2yrs on the PD by the time I went off to academy so I was pretty squared away with what was going on. However, we did have plenty of Generation X'ers in there that simply viewed the academy as a continuation of the years of college they had just completed prior to getting hired and were lax in their approach. I remember a few sleeping in class that thanks to guys like me, did not get caught, or there would have been hell to pay for all of us. Those people went one of two ways The first was that they quickly realized that academy was not the same as a BS elective course on the History of the Middle Ages that they could sleep through classes as long as they did the reading and barfed it back up on a test someplace. Academy classes prefaced things they would then be expected to execute in a practical environment, in fairly short order, or else. The second was that they did not square themselves away, flunked out, and were mere memories very early in the academy process, usually within the first 3-4 weeks. There is value in some of the military training methods in a police academy setting. Teaching things to large groups of like minded people applies. Also, the adult learning principles in that people learn differently and lectures in class are good enough for some, others need to actually do the task to learn it, some need both but in different proportions but the end result will be that everyone by a certain point, will be able to do the task.
    I think that since police and military are different organizations, one method will never fit neatly into the other. There are parts of both that may be interchangeable but “boot camp” wont generally turn out the type of officer that civilian society is likely to accept. I am not knocking it, I just know that in over 14 years of service, 8 in supervision, that the complaints seem to come more often on those guys fresh out of the USMC or other branches. So many times I get the calls from agitated citizens stating that the officer “ was a robot, he acted like he didn’t care at all, he just took the report and left.” I know that they were doing their job. They were not unkind, rude, derelict in their duties or anything like that, they were executing a task taught to them by repetition. The mission was accomplished. It can be a long road of sanding down some of the edges of rigid military life and discipline into something that citizens totally unfamiliar with the military or policing will tend to accept. Right or wrong, citizens expect and want the officers to care when they show up. You don’t necessarily have to but you need to at least act like you do or else there will be hassles following you on every call you go on. I would use the military idea of “winning of hearts and minds” when operating in the “enemy” area, is something we need to do to succeed.
    Lastly, where I think the military differs from police in training up their people is that soldiers will do what they are told because that is how they are told to do it. In my experience in training both new cops as well as in-service, they want to know WHY that is the way to do something. I think the compromise is somewhere in the middle that I show them why this way is a good way to do something but there might be other ways to get it done that would work as well. Maybe I have been misinformed, but I have not heard the military big on explaining why things are done the way they are to anyone in the trenches who asks. I am not saying that PD’s are shining examples of democracy in action that would be ridiculous. However, PD’s have a “General Manual” or “General Orders” which are just that, GENERAL. It is a collection of policies and practices that provide a general framework in which to govern the vast mission of policing in society as done by that agency. The military on the other hand has a “Field Manual” that dictates step by step how to do every task from going #2 in the field up to loading and maintaining a Howitzer and that is the ONLY way that task will be done.
    I think the balance is a method that instills some of the personal discipline of the military as well as draws on the academic mind to learn and apply a lot of complicated, technical and ever changing knowledge such as law and tactics. The key is to balance it. Too much in either direction will create problems for the recruits down the road. Too much academia and lax discipline will get them washed out as will the inability to think independently and solve a problem in front of them without a black and white checklist of data to draw upon.

    Just my four cents worth.

  • Sfa_iv_max50


    over 4 years ago


    There is a discipline mode that must be reached, then there is the soft mode that must obtained to produce a functional Officer. The military needs you to be in the kill mode, However a LEO must be in the servant mode with a Kill switch (for lack of better words at the moment) to react to stress situations of life and death. Most of the time they are watchful and humble but ever ready. Unlike the Military that tries daily to keep that kill switch on because of the nature of the duty. Been on bothsides and I also have plenty schooling.

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