U.S. military used more funds, not less, to boost training, improve skills and prepare personnel for success. Police should use the same model.

As the debate over whether to defund the police continues, it might help to take a look at how the United States dramatically reformed its troubled armed forces after the Vietnam War, not because police in America need to become more militarized (in fact, the two of us have written explicitly against that idea).

Instead, the U.S. armed forces, one of the nation’s largest institutions, managed to improve at a moment of national crisis — not by defunding but by increasing spending in ways that were strategic and strengthened its force. That experience may offer lessons for another large but troubled and beleaguered institution today.

Neither major presidential nominee favors defunding the police, but a number of city councils around the country are already slashing budgets in response to the movement that intensified after the tragic, criminal and entirely unacceptable killing of unarmed Black male George Floyd in May. 

The need for police reform in the United States is compelling. But “defunding” is, for the most part, not the way to do it, as the lessons of U.S. military reform in the 1970s and 1980s serve to illustrate. 

Police officers are not soldiers, but there are relevant insights to be gained.

Demoralized force finds its way

America’s armed forces in the wake of the Vietnam War were a mess in many ways. 

Demoralized by a lost war and an unappreciative public at home, divided by politics and experiencing deep racial and social divisions, the military was afflicted by violence, drug abuse, sexual assault and other vices. 

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To be sure, just as with today’s police, there was much excellence in the services alongside the bad: Leaders such as Generals Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, David Petraeus, Joseph Dunford and Stanley McChrystal, and Adm. William McRaven cut their teeth back in the 1970s. But overall, as we emerged from the draft years of Vietnam, much of the military was a mess — described by one senior leader as a “hollow force.”

But within 15 years, the military was once again the pride of the land, doing its (peaceful) part to help win the Cold War, and executing a stunning victory in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The elimination of the draft, creation of a strong all-volunteer force, close integration of the National Guard and Reserves with the active forces, and the defense buildup of President Ronald Reagan, turned an organization that had been among the nation’s least regarded to the most trusted institution in the United States. It retains that standing today, even after difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Tellingly, back in the 1970s and 1980s, defunding the military was not a strong consideration. The world did not allow for such a luxury — any more than the need for public safety in today’s cities, towns and counties allows us truly to defund the police. In fact, the nation went in the other direction — increasing spending, so that its personnel had the resources they needed for performance standards that were being lifted and toughened. This led to, among other things, huge improvements in the realistic training provided at national training centers. 

Of course, the challenge is more complex for the police.

In contrast to just six military branches of service (counting the Coast Guard and the new Space Force), there are approximately 18,000 police agencies in the United States. Each with a chief or sheriff who leads a very unique force, each with a population they are responsible for protecting and obligated to listen to. Having just dozens of officers (on the high end), many agencies are small with tight budgets. Bigger agencies have more flexibility. But at the end of the day, the primary mission of answering calls and keeping crime low drives decisions of all departments, no matter the size.

Most agencies in America have personnel spend too much of their time in operational roles, on patrol or doing detective work at any given moment. People want to see the police they pay. Never mind that the concept of “omnipresence” as a crime-control measure has long since been disproven. 

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We need a combination of slightly larger police forces, more resources for training and a shift in culture that allows more cops to be “off line” from time to time.

Within police culture, training is often painfully undervalued. A chief may ask: Why send officers for more training, when cops traditionally learn on the job? Alas, that’s just the point. Look at what a great job Derek Chauvin did training rookies in Minneapolis?  

The reality is that most agencies provide a sum of 40 hours of in-service training per officer each year. The majority of that time is focused on tactics, pistol qualifications and perhaps a legislative update. Advanced problem solving, policy considerations and complicated scenarios (including many that call for major restraint in the use of force) simply aren’t in the cards for most agencies — in terms of budget or time. 

Compare this with the armed forces. In the midst of the Vietnam War, the Navy began the TOPGUN school (reflected in the popular flick of the same name that came out years later) to better train its fighter pilots. Other branches have created equally intense training schools so the U.S. military can properly prepare service members for work — and lawmakers have learned to provide the necessary resources.

Long history of training, support

Indeed, some aspects of this thinking go back a long way. From the early 19th century, the nation committed to developing an officer corps in West Point and Annapolis.

It is not just the military that has a strong culture of education, of course. 

Similar traditions are found in the medical and legal communities, for example, where no one would think of asking a doctor or lawyer to serve indefinitely without refresher courses to learn about the newest ideas and technologies, reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t in his or her experiences, and share insights with each other.

Unfortunately, there is no strong and consistent parallel across police departments in the USA. The FBI’s National Academy reaches fewer than 1,000 law enforcement participants annually. 

Yes, there could be specific and limited ways to defund the police by strengthening government departments that focus on solving other community problems (many of which traditionally get thrown into the hands of police) such as substance abuse and mental health crises.

Overall, however, taking a page out of how America fixed its military in a troubled time half a century ago, we might need more money and resources to truly fix the policing problem.

John Donohue, retired chief of strategic initiatives with the New York Police Department, is a fellow at Rutgers University’s Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience. 

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of research in the foreign policy program. His forthcoming books are “Defense 101” and “The Art of War in the Age of Peace.” He is also a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. 

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