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Want police reforms? Then, ask the hard questions

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Almost the entire western world in some shape or form has come together to ask for police reform. But many lawmakers and movement leaders are left empty handed as to what major reforms should actually be pushed. If we really want reform, culture change, we have to ask the hard questions. We have to find and address the root causes behind what we feel are the issues.

There are only two professions entrusted with the power to make decisions, sometimes daily, on the use of lethal force in the line of their duties: the military and police.

To be sure, there are many differences between the police and the military. Training and equipment is vastly different. A beat cop should not look, act, or be equipped like a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq.

But there are great similarities and possible lessons to be learned in the two professions.

For example, the U.S. military works through many systems that create members and groups of an effective profession — including the personal interests and motivations of the individuals, small group cohesion, unique disciplinary and justice systems, tactics, administrative functions, a chain of command, civilian oversight, and legal, moral and ethical codes.

The military takes citizens from across our nation and develops them into professional soldiers. Those soldiers are still humans and there are bad soldiers that make it past the military’s training. But it is the other systems, such as their unit training, peers, superiors, organizational design, and codes of conduct that either keep their behavior in line or changes them as individuals.

An examination of a military or police system would reveal that what leads to a trusted member of a profession starts before even day one. It starts with recruiting the best candidates, not just the best applicant. What organizational systems are designed to recruit, retain, and sustain individual motivations, morale, and ethical conduct? Are recruits from the communities they will be assigned to police? Is police recruiting a major priority? Are police paid enough? Are there additional benefits beyond pay and pension? What percentage of a police force turns over frequently and if so, why?

Training is a critical part of both the military and police. Every day of training invested in a soldier or a police officer has individual and institutional benefits. How much training must a police recruit go through to become an officer? Is the training rigorous enough to expose trainees with preexisting psychological issues? What reinforcement training happens in the police force? Weekly? Monthly? How much training is provided for each significant portion of police duties? How much is split between weapons training versus escalation of force or de-escalation techniques?

Promotional pathways of police officers reinforce what they value and what culture they sustain. How are members of the force rewarded? What behaviors and qualities of a cop are reinforced by the institution? What type of leaders rise to the top?

Make no mistake: Our society needs police. History supports the use of a body of trusted professional law enforcers to allow us to flourish as a civilization. Security, like food or water, is a human need. And police are a critical node in the security framework of our lives. When we are in danger or fear death, we know that our 911 call will be answered and professionals will be sent to our aid.

But as we demand reforms, we must be prepared to ask and answer the hard questions.

John Spencer served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army for 25 years and completed two combat deployments to Iraq. He is chair of Urban Warfare Studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point.