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The Police’s “Sheepdog” Problem

Twenty percent of cops are military veterans—and some are fighting to rid policing of fear-based training and a testosterone-fueled culture.

Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Derek Chauvin learned how to be a cop from the Department of Defense. For eight years, Chauvin served as a military police officer in the Army Reserve, and though he never rose above the rank of E-4—a junior pay grade granted to most entry-level soldiers within a year or two—he played up his military credentials on his application to be a Minneapolis police officer in 2001, according to Stars and Stripes. In his time on the force, he accrued at least 17 misconduct complaints. Then, on May 25, he put a knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, strangling him to death. 

In April 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager shot a fleeing Walter Scott five times in the back, killing him, then told dispatchers that Scott had “grabbed my Taser.” A bystander’s video showed otherwise, and Slager was ultimately convicted of a federal civil rights violation and sent to jail for 20 years. Slager, who was white, was a veteran of the Coast Guard, just like Scott, the black man he’d killed. 

Two weeks later, in Virginia, William Chapman, a black teen suspected of shoplifting at a Walmart, was shot dead by Portsmouth police officer Stephen Rankin—a white former Navy master-at-arms who, in 2011, had also shot an unarmed 26-year-old Kazakh cook 11 times in the line of duty. “What’s the difference if it was one round or 11 rounds or 111 rounds?” Rankin had written under a pseudonym on his local paper’s comment board. “When I was in Iraq, that would have been a good shoot. In fact, nobody would have really given it a second thought.” (Rankin, who was convicted in Chapman’s death and served two years in prison, deployed to Kuwait during his Navy career, but not Iraq, records show.)

There is no direct throughline connecting military service and brutal policing. For generations, the trope of the troubled (male) veteran who can’t turn off the violence and displaces his traumas has been a hackneyed stereotype of media coverage. And over the past decade, as American wars wind down and domestic impatience with police violence has grown—by one estimate, U.S. cops killed three people per day last year—some commentators have argued that military units now exercise more restraint and discipline than police forces. 

Nevertheless, just as law enforcement departments have been gifted billions of dollars in surplus military hardware, they have also relied on a military-to-police pipeline to fill their ranks. This pipeline was reinforced by the Obama administration, which put tens of millions of dollars into creating veteran police positions in cities and towns across the country. “Even as departments around the country have attempted a cultural transformation from ‘warriors’ to ‘guardians,’ one in five police officers is literally a warrior, returned from Afghanistan, Iraq or other assignments,” according to “When Warriors Put On the Badge,” a 2017 investigative report by the Marshall Project in partnership with USA Today. (Even though they make up 20 percent of police forces, veterans make up only 7 percent of the U.S. population, by federal estimates.)

And while former service members have long been hailed as prototypical cops, the available data disagrees. The Marshall Project found that veteran cops in Miami and Boston were more likely than nonserving officers to have faced use-of-force complaints. The news nonprofit also calculated that one-third of fatal police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico, between 2010 and 2014 involved military veterans. A 2018 study of the Dallas police department found that veteran cops were more likely to fire their guns, regardless of their deployment history.  

In addition to a slew of recent high-profile killings of black Americans by cops with prior military service, the Marshall Project report concludes, “Veterans who work as police are more vulnerable to self-destructive behavior,” with little mental health screening or assistance; veterans preference in law enforcement recruiting also translates to adding more white cops out of proportion to most of the populations that they police. “Policing is not combat, it’s not a war,” said Joe Smarro, a Marine veteran of Iraq and San Antonio police officer who is now working to train fellow cops in de-escalation, crisis intervention, and suicide prevention. “It’s an entirely different world, an entirely different mindset. Yet the preparation is parallel to the military.”

When the September 11, 2001, attacks led the United States to declare war on terror, the logistics of American policing changed radically. Initially, law enforcement agencies had to manage the loss of a significant part of their workforces to reserve military deployments; as military engagements in Afghanistan and then Iraq dragged on, they sought to leverage “the valuable skills returning veterans possess and the unique recruiting opportunity” they offered police forces, according to “Employing Returning Combat Veterans as Law Enforcement Officers,” a 2009 Department of Justice report. 

Nevertheless, the report’s authors also anticipated that as law enforcement leaders staffed up with veterans, they would need to offer lessons “exploring PTSD issues, differentiating between hostile war zones and local community environments, and retraining the use-of-force techniques.” One veteran cop testified in the report: “I don’t like driving over potholes because in Iraq they would put explosive devices in potholes and then pour concrete over them.” In Iraq, another explained, “you would fire a couple shots in the air to push the crowds back, but here [the response] would be to push the yellow tape back and request backup.” A third admitted: “You have to relearn everything.”

In the event, however, police increasingly have treated community environments as war zones. One manifestation of this is the “sheepdog mentality,” codified by Dave Grossman, a retired Army officer who trains police and firearms owners in “killology,” the art of using violence to be protectors of their flocks. “[M]ost citizens … are sheep,” Grossman writes in his magnum opus, On Combat:

I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.

In this mentality, cops, soldiers, and lawfully armed citizens are all the same: They’re the gnarly sheepdogs who protect the flock, attack the wolves, and apparently always know the differences between the three groups. In his training sessions for police and civilians, Grossman depicts a bleak American future where school buses and day-care centers are targeted by radicalized video gamers, and the West Coast is bombed by a nuclear-armed ISIS. “We fight violence,” he said in a recent seminar attended by Mother Jones. “What do we fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.” 

Some veteran cops have pushed back against this testosterone-fueled strain of policing. They include Stephen Mader, a Marine Afghanistan veteran who, as a rookie cop in West Virginia in 2016, gained media notoriety after he was fired for not shooting at a distraught suspect who held an unloaded gun; and Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer and Coast Guard veteran profiled last year by The New Yorker who now embraces compassionate community policing as a beat cop in Savannah, Georgia. (“We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” Skinner told The New Yorker’s Ben Taub. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.”) 

One of the veteran cops pushing systemic change is Joe Smarro, the San Antonio cop who drives a truck, prays to God, and backs the blue. Smarro is a central character in the compelling new HBO documentary Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops, which follows the work of Smarro’s pioneering police mental health unit. Smarro and his then-partner, a former Boy Scout named Ernie Stevens, were often placed in tense and potentially volatile situations. Yet rather than wield weapons or shout orders, Smarro and Stevens masterfully de-escalate through love, compassion, and a helping hand. “You might be broken, but you’re fixable,” Stevens promises a woman contemplating suicide. 

“On average, in a police academy in this country, they spend 60 hours or more learning how to shoot a gun, and they spend eight on mental health and communication,” Smarro says in the documentary. “We need to shift that.”

In a recent Facebook video about George Floyd’s murder, Smarro urged the U.S. to “completely revamp” training standards for members of law enforcement. The curriculum, he said, should focus on “neuroscience, human psychology, behavior, connection, [and] communication” first. Only then, he added, should they “focus on tactics and all that, but it would not be the majority, because we are not a military in our own cities.”

Instead, much police training today evokes fear and anger in recruits, including videos of cops being beaten and killed. “I graduated the police academy more afraid than I was after military boot camp,” Smarro admitted to me. “Cops who show force are usually hiding fear. They are afraid to emote; they are afraid to express their feelings.” 

While he’s trained officers of all stripes, Smarro gives special attention to veterans, many of whom mistakenly believe that becoming a cop is a natural switch. He’s quick to tell fellow veterans of the healing brought through years of intensive counseling at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and urges cops facing trauma to speak up and get help. He was scheduled to speak to roughly 400 of the NYPD’s 4,000-plus veteran cops in early March about resilience and self-care, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans. 

Smarro now finds himself frustrated by his own department, which he says refuses to support the documentary and help spread the gospel of the mental health unit. He also said the unit’s work has been diluted by being tasked with new “threat assessment” work, which introduces more fear into policing. Last week, he says, another cop moved to get the unit a cannon-like riot-control gun. 

“What’s sad to me is that our mission, our goal to go out in plain clothes and help people out, has lost its way,” Smarro said. He now plans to leave the force by the end of the year. 

“Killology,” in the meantime, continues apace. This week, Dave Grossman, the veteran instructor of “sheepdog” policing, remains set to give a presentation on his work to members of the Spokane, Washington, community at the local sheriff’s behest. And all hell broke loose last week in Michigan’s Shelby Township, outside Detroit. Police Chief Robert Shelide was placed on paid leave after it was discovered he’d been using an anonymous Twitter account to decry demonstrators as “wild savages” and prescribe “body bags for these vicious subhumans.” 

When Donald Trump threatened to deploy the military in U.S. cities, that anonymous account had tweeted, “I have a better idea: unleash the real cops and let them take care of these barbarians. I promise it will be over in 24 hours. Cops are crippled by politicians and the media.” Shortly afterward, internet sleuths deduced the account holder’s identity. The police chief’s Twitter handle had been “sheepdawg711.”