All I ever wanted to be was a police officer. I didn’t want to wait until I was 21 years old, so I joined the Air Force right out of high school in 1978. After completing my four-year enlistment, I was quickly hired as an Illinois State Trooper thanks to some luck and the help of a few veterans’ preference points to raise my hiring position. Back then, police agencies valued the discipline and maturity young veterans brought to the job. Over the following decades, requirements changed and a college education grew in value. But, recruiting veterans remained popular because police leaders still believed those military traits of honesty, integrity, service and a strong work ethic make up the backbone of every good cop. That viewpoint made veterans good and educated veterans even better.

After 9/11: A New – More Military – Police Mission

Then the unimaginable happened. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 changed our country forever. We switched from the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, and our police officers transformed into the frontline soldiers in this new domestic war on terror. Our policing mindset changed. Our police mission changed. Our police training changed.

Once again, our veterans were in demand. Police leaders across the country knew vets possessed the skills their department needed. Of course, police departments still valued honesty, integrity, service and a strong work ethic, but our veterans also attained the experience and training in the operation of military equipment and execution of military tactics necessary for police to successfully engage in America’s War on Terror. Police militarization took hold, as we placed our cops in armored personnel carriers for demonstrations and told them to carry military rifles on patrol. It was not uncommon to see officers patrolling in Kevlar helmets, wearing military fatigue uniforms and performing tasks formerly reserved for special units like SWAT.

Hard Police Tactics Replaced Soft Policing Skills – at the Expense of Our Communities

At the same time, this new mission drew scarce police resources away from community engagement and community programs, such as neighborhood patrols, community policing and DARE/Officer Friendly programs. In essence, police militarization replaced soft policing skills that helped departments create strong ties with the community. Police agencies de-emphasized their community role and referred to segments of society as if they were the enemy. While these military tactics may have worked well in the War on Terror, they don’t really work for policing our communities. Police militarization further disenfranchises our minority communities and places police officers under a microscope for the use of their military tactics.

Don’t Blame Our Police Veterans

What did our veteran cops do? They followed orders and protected citizens to the best of their abilities. But, police militarization did not come from our veterans – it came from our government and police leaders – and has largely been summarily rejected by our communities. Thankfully, police agencies are shifting back to community engagement, community policing and service-focused programs. But our veteran police officers unfairly bear the scars of our country’s demands. The militarization of our police was not our veterans’ decision, but their assigned duty.

These brave men and women are now part of our policing solution. They are leading young officers in a bright future for policing and are focusing on our communities. They are changing the emphasis from warriors to guardians and from eliminating potential threats to solving problems collaboratively with the communities they serve.

Thank a Vet Today – and Consider Hiring One

On this Veterans Day, let’s recognize the amazing contributions our members of the military made and the sacrifices they and their families gave to keep democracy the greatest form of government. Then, let’s see them for who they are – an amazing pool of talented employees. Many of our future police officers, teachers, doctors, business leaders and elected officials will come from the military because honesty, integrity, service and a strong work ethic are still the key to every great employee.

To all who have served and their families: Thank you and Happy Veterans Day!

To all of you managers hiring new employees: please strongly consider a veteran.

You won’t be disappointed.


Click here to learn how Hillard Heintze’s Law Enforcement Consulting practice helps law enforcement agencies strengthen ties with the community.