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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.

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