Once a Soldier, Now a Cop


11.11.09soldiercopsIn Part Two of our special Veterans Day report, we explore how returning soldiers are gravitating towards law enforcement–and examine the problems that sometimes result.

All across the country, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning–or turning–to police work. According to a recent survey of the nation's police agencies conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), about 86 percent of the 112 responding departments currently employ veterans who have deployed within the last five years. (Ed Note: the survey did not ask the departments to distinguish between returning officers or new hires.)

The experience of working under the pressures of combat can be a plus in the complex challenges of modern law enforcement, but it can also pose problems.

“Many police departments look upon vets as a great source of strength,” says Arnold Daxe, a Vietnam veteran and the Project Manager of the IACP's Employing Returning Combat Veterans as Law Enforcement Officers program. “They know discipline, chain of command and weapons.” But, he adds, veterans often need special attention. “Physically, they don't have any wounds, but mentally they may not be ready” to dive into police work right after combat, he says.

The survey and special report, entitled “Employing Returning Combat Veterans as Law Enforcement Officers,” was presented to the IACP annual conference in Denver last month. The report represents the first attempt to provide systematic guidelines for police departments.

To address the challenge of reintegration, the IACP report recommends a one-to-two year plan that includes everything from peer and family support groups to drivers' and firearms training. Retraining is especially important because, although there are some obvious parallels between military duties and police work, the rules of engagement in war are significantly different than those accepted stateside.

Soldiers deployed in the combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy lurks in alleyways, along roads, and inside domestic dwellings, have had to develop hyper-vigilance to survive. That constant alertness isn't easily shed, which can pose problems for veterans who return to–or begin–police work back home.

“We can't just grab people off the street like we did in Iraq,” says Thaddeus Kerkoff, a Renton, Washington police officer who served two tours in Iraq. After leaving the Army in early 2007, Kerkoff spent a year bartending and working as a car salesman to give himself time to readjust to “regular” society.

“I knew I needed time to transition,” says Kerkoff, who was a military policeman at Ft. Hood and ran a security team for a colonel in Iraq. Like many returning veterans, Kerkoff came home an anxious driver. Once while driving near home, he swerved through three lanes of traffic to avoid a cardboard box, terrifying his wife. “In my mind, that box could have blown up,” he says. “No matter what you're doing in Iraq you have to be hyper-vigilant.”

John Firman, the IACP's research director, says that such heightened alertness can be a boon to officers in that they are used to dealing with stressful, dangerous situations. But unlike in war, most citizens aren't trying to blow up cops, and readjusting to that reality can be tricky. “You can't just tell someone who's just back from a combat zone, 'Relax, you're going into the community now.' The issue is transition,” he says.

Daxe agrees. “Smart chiefs understand this and ease them back in,” he says, but points out that until now, law enforcement leaders had little guidance about the best way to help veterans successfully transition from combat to community policing. Daxe believes the IACP report, and two upcoming guidebooks — one aimed at law enforcement leaders and one for veteran officers — will go a long way toward bridging this gap.

Recognition and Retraining

One key recommendation involves paying more attention to the sacrifices made by officers deployed abroad–the kind of “touchy-feely” approach that goes against the stoic culture of policing. “I've seen officers return embittered and angry because they felt their departments let them down while they were deployed,” says Daxe, who notes that the lack of attention is especially painful for National Guard Reserves, who were subject to long and multiple deployments. Returning soldiers complain that their colleagues or police department brass didn't bother to stay in touch, even through cards or packages, and rarely contacted their families to see if they needed any assistance.

The IACP report suggests that departments support their overseas officers through family liaisons, email and phone contact, and public acknowledgement of the veteran officer's sacrifice upon return.

“It doesn't cost anything to bake a cake or put your arm around an officer,” says Daxe, who suggests that old-fashioned welcome-home celebrations like a department BBQ can make a major difference in helping the veteran officer transition back into policing with a positive attitude.

Of course, there are some things a cake and a card can't fix, like the mental health symptoms that 28 percent of officers the IACP surveyed reported experiencing.

“Police and soldiers worry about whether psychological services are actually confidential,” says Daxe. “And they think that if someone sees them going to the mental health unit they'll be looked on as weak.”

The IACP report recommends that departments establish peer and family support groups for vets and initiate a “flexible timeline” for returning to duty. Though Daxe says there isn't a magic number of weeks or months a veteran officer should wait until hitting the streets in uniform, he sees reintegration taking 60 to 90 days on average, and no more than six months. Among the recommendations for reintegration are full reviews of the rules of engagement (including deadly force), comprehensive driver training and programs to reprogram muscle memory and language use, so that officers automatically respond in a manner appropriate to their community environment, instead of the combat theater where everyone is the enemy.


Earlier this week, in honor of Veteran's Day, President Obama signed an executive order creating the Council on Veterans Employment to “enhance recruitment of and promote employment opportunities for veterans” in the executive branch. But police departments around the nation are already actively recruiting recent vets. As the IACP’s report states: “The prevailing perception is that individuals with military experience make desirable law enforcement employees.”

One way that departments recruit is through the Army PaYS (Partnership for Youth Success) website. Agencies including the Phoenix Police Department, the Broward County Sheriff's Department and the NYPD are all listed as “premier employers” for vets.

Captain Dale Saffold of the Arkansas State Police, which is also listed on the Army PaYS site, says his agency employs about 50 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 10 percent of the force.

“Like a lot of State Police, we're a quasi-militaristic organization,” says Saffold. “These vets already have experience with that chain of command structure. They tend to have personal discipline and know how to operate under pressure. Typically, if you can operate in those conditions over there, you can definitely come back and operate here on the highways.”

That said, Saffold believes that new recruits and returning officers both need “adequate time to readjust from what they've been subjected to over there.” Saffold could think of a handful of officers who worked with the ASP for a few weeks or months after discharge and ended up leaving the force.

“Whether they were a police officer before deploying or not, they're a different person when they come back from war,” he says. “Some people just can't readjust because they have too much baggage from the experience.”

But Saffold says the recruits and returning officers he's seen have been, by and large, a tremendous boon to the force. And according to Daxe, the chiefs who responded to the IACP’s survey had much the same attitude: “Most of the [police] chiefs we spoke with said they wish they'd had a primer seven years ago.”

NEXT WEEK: How police departments are training officers to interact with troubled veterans in the community.

Julia Dahl is a Contributing Editor at The Crime Report.

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