THE MYTH OF THE “MILITARY MODEL” OF LEADERSHIP IN LAW ENFORCEMENT THOMAS J. COWPER
New York State Police
Law enforcement is generally understood to be a paramilitary pursuit based on a specific “military model” of leadership and organization. This article analyzes the so-called military model in law enforcement and dispels the notion that police officers and their departments are patterned after the real military. It draws on the author’s personal experience as well as on historical works and military doctrinal publications. It illustrates the problems caused within policing by the false assumptions about military leadership, structure, and doctrine and then outlines the potential benefits to policing of a more correct understanding and application of valid military concepts and methodologies.
It is a commonly accepted law enforcement notion that police agencies of the free world today are designed on the “military model” of organization and leadership. Modern analogies either lionize that model or deride it as utterly inappropriate for a civil police force. Neither view is correct: There are two military models, each based on a largely symbolic, limited, and inaccurate understanding of military doctrine and practice. One is a vicious parody, combining absurdist fiction such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 with a narrow view based on individual military experiences. The other is an imaginary (and inflated) heroic vision, wrapped in the flag of a different category of fiction, from the cinema accounts of Sergeant York and Audie Murphy to the Rambo and Delta Force genre. Both do a grievous disservice to both the military and the police: Each in its own way makes the military a scapegoat for the ineptitude, structural absurdities, bad management, and outright criminality in police work that are the legacies of the politicization of the American police throughout their history. This article will not attempt to justify or defend every military practice, policy, or procedure throughout history as either good or applicable to policPOLICE QUARTERLY Vol. 3 No. 3, September 2000 © 2000 Sage Publications, Inc. 228–246
Cowper / THE MYTH OF THE MILITARY MODEL
ing. Clearly, the military has had more than its share of abusive commanders and unenlightened organizational policies. What it will attempt to do is dispel the notion of a single military leadership model that needs to be rejected—a stereotypical model based on authoritarian, centralized control of mindless subordinates conditioned to shoot first and ask questions later (Kopel & Blackman, 1997). This fallacious notion is causing many progressive police decision makers to ignore or reject a vast body of knowledge and experience—organizational structures, training and development philosophies, methods of operation, and practical leadership—that could radically improve the way law enforcement agencies conduct the business of policing. In fact, police commanders who understand strategic and tactical decision making and can incorporate effective operational planning techniques as well as organizational command and control methodologies into the conduct of police operations will increase our ability as peacekeepers to successfully resolve crisis situations without the use of military assistance, ordnance, heavy weaponry, and excessive violence. A number of superficial similarities lend themselves to the military comparison. Police departments tend to be organized with rank structures and uniforms and incorporate many of the various accouterments of the armed forces, designed in large measure to set cops apart from mere civilians and signal obvious membership in an organization that wields the immediate force of government. Many police executives desire for their agencies strict uniformity, respect for the chain of command, and the sharp, professional appearance of parade ground...