Cops Aren’t Soldiers

The similarities are obvious. The differences are more important.

Two Naval Academy graduates have confronted police officers lately about their oaths to the Constitution. Alas, the cops have no idea what they’re talking about.

The Guardian (“‘That’s an illegal order’: veterans challenge Trump’s officers in Portland“):

The Black Lives Matter protest in Portland looked to be winding down last Saturday night when US marine corps veteran Duston Obermeyer noticed a phalanx of federal officers emerge from the federal courthouse.

They shot teargas at the crowd and pushed a protester to the ground with such force that, Obermeyer said, she slid 6ft across the pavement.

The 42-year-old had driven about 40 minutes from his home in the Molalla area for his first protest after hearing the many recent reports of federal personnel in tactical gear emerging from unmarked cars with automatic weapons to pick up protesters. His plan was to observe first-hand what was happening.

But in that moment, he said, he realized he couldn’t stand by and simply watch.

In a Pokémon hat and Superman T-shirt, and with a cotton mask protecting his face, the 6ft 4in, 275lb man walked up to the officers and asked whether they understood their oath to defend the constitution.

“They are not supposed to be coming and attacking protesters,” Obermeyer told the Guardian. “They didn’t even give any warning, there was no ‘hey you need to move’, ‘hey back up’. There was basically them walking out and assaulting a protester just to prove that they could.”

Just a few feet away, Obermeyer was aware of another man, US navy veteran Chris David, asking virtually the same question.

Despite both being graduates of the naval academy, David is 11 years older and thus the pair had never met. But after more than 50 consecutive days of anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests in Portland, following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, and the recent deployment of militarized federal agents by Donald Trump, both veterans had decided simultaneously now was the time to start asking questions.

“I’m not a big believer in coincidence,” said Obermeyer. “I believe that we both have similar feelings because we come from similar places and we truly believe in the constitution as it’s currently written and as it’s taught in grade school. And this is a violation of constitutional rights.”

David, who came dressed in a Naval Academy sweatshirt and Navy wrestling hat, told the Guardian he believes they both came out that day because of their time at the naval academy, which instills “a deep level of integrity” in graduates. But also, he said, for perhaps an even simpler reason.

“We have the ability to see what is right and what is wrong. And what we both saw was wrong and we wanted to go out there and talk to those officers.”

Obermeyer also asked the officers whether they understand what an illegal order is, referencing the fact that military officers are required by law to disobey illegal or unconstitutional orders.

“Assaulting an unarmed protester who is exercising their first amendment rights is illegal, that’s an illegal order,” he said.

That’s when teargas was fired on the two men. When that didn’t deter them, Obermeyer said an officer tried to hit him with a baton, but he caught it and quickly pushed him back. Another officer repeatedly beat David with a baton, breaking his hand in two places, an injury that will require surgery on Monday. He was also sprayed in the face with a white chemical irritant that he said “felt like flaming gasoline.”

So far as I know, I’ve never met David or Obermeyer. But they’ve had a world class education and endured a process designed to weed out people of low character. Although, sadly, men like Roy Moore and Mike Pompeo demonstrate that the process isn’t a hundred percent successful. (Indeed, Pompeo graduated at the very top of his class.) Literally from Day 1, the emphasis is on Duty, Honor, Country.

The vast majority of police forces in America are employed by municipalities. Most of them are poorly paid, poorly screened, and poorly trained. State troopers tend to be better, as do police in bigger cities, which can pay more and have better academies.

At the federal level, there are a handful of elite police forces. The FBI is the most notable, of course, but there are other highly-selective, superbly trained forces. But they’re the exception even at the federal level.

It’s not fully clear who the cops in Portland are. The city’s police force has come under serious criticism for heavy-handed tactics and, depending on one’s view, either paradoxically or therefore have been unsuccessful in quelling violence and mayhem. The federal agents sent in appear to be some combination of Federal Protective Service, Border Patrol, and private security contractors. None of them have anything like the training David and Obermeyer underwent.

I’ve come to the conclusion that most policing in America is analogous to a military without an officer corps.

While some of our commissioned officers are “mustangs” who have significant enlisted experience, the vast majority started their careers as lieutenants or ensigns after completing a four-year college education at one of the academies or an ROTC program. Others go through officer candidate school directly out of college.

They’re must less experienced, at first, then the NCOs/petty officers and enlisted troops they lead. But they’re educated and imbued with a sense of the bigger picture: the higher mission, civil-military relations, the law of armed conflict, and the like.

Our NCOs and petty officers are the lifeblood of the force. But, ultimately, they’re technicians focused on getting the job done.

The vast majority of our cops have little education beyond high school. After a brief stint at a police academy, they undergo on-the-job training under the tutelage of more senior beat cops. The most talented move up the ranks to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and beyond.

Even at the smallest unit level, soldiers and Marines are at least indirectly supervised by officers. There’s, therefore, always someone around who’s supposed to question whether orders are illegal, whether a given tactical action is detrimental to the higher mission, and, yes, about the oath everyone from private soldier to four-star general has taken to the Constitution.

The police forces—let alone private contractors—David and Obermeyer were talking to have none of that. Some of them are simply bullies who enjoy exerting their dominance. Most are only minimally trained in crowd control and are scared. And they’re in a culture where they view themselves in a “war.”

Both soldiers and police see those not in their uniform as “civilians.” Both the word has very different meanings. Soldiers, at least American soldiers, are trained to see themselves as subordinate to civilian authorities and charged with protecting civilians, even at increased risk to their own lives. Police, meanwhile, see their fellow citizens as a threat to their survival.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Military Affairs, Police
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    In essence, then , the world’s sole superpower, resorts to what amounts to third-world paramilitary militias to keep domestic order in times of crisis.

    It fits the third-world cacique wannabe currently pretending to lead the country.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    The fact that the Republicans are condoning and encouraging the use of Blackwater thugs to brutalize American citizens tells you all you need to know about their phony patriotism. Just add it to the phony Christianity, the phony fiscal responsibility and the phony morality. Truly the Party of Lies.

  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Only some of them? You have a far more generous opinion than I do of the people carrying on this “campaign” and especially of the rent-a-thugs the administration has most likely been reduced to hiring to put this many bodies in (pseudo) uniform.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    I’m sure that it’s easily found on youtube but the obvious fact of a ‘police riot’ put me in mind of ol’ Mayor Daley: The police aren’t there to create disorder, they’re there to PRESERVE disorder. A Freudian slip for all time.

    Wonderful OP, by the way. Couldn’t think of anything to add except that odd memory-synapse.

  5. Michael Cain says:

    The vast majority of our cops have little education beyond high school.

    I guess we’re an outlier. The very large majority of the population in Colorado (so cops, too) are in the urban/suburban Front Range. Essentially all of them require sworn officers to have a two-year associate’s degree or 60 semester hours towards a four-year degree from an accredited school just to apply. My suburban city (120,000 people, adjacent to Denver on the west side) is one of the ones that requires sworn officers to have a four-year degree. My city’s department makes no exceptions for prior sterling experience or anything else — every single sworn officer has a four-year degree.

    Most places probably can’t be that picky. There is a thing in the academic literature on education called “the Colorado paradox.” We are just so-so at getting our own kids through high school and college. But we have one of the most educated work forces in the country because so many graduates from other places choose to relocate here. At the current growth rate, we add a million people to the population about every nine years.

  6. Zachriel says:

    “While some countries worry a lot about social unrest, we see it as people expressing views about that hardship,” he says. “We’re going to be proactive with employment and job creation. And if you get frustrated and want to shout, we have a constitution and set of laws and institutions that allow that to happen in democratic ways.”

  7. JKB says:

    It may distress you that every police officer/special agent has a commission or warrant (depending on laws covering agency) with independent arrest powers within the jurisdiction and administrative policies of their agency. They are far closer to a military commissioned officer than you might think. And they answer for their decisions independently before both their agency leadership, civilian district attorneys and judges. They are subject to civilian tort lawsuits and criminal prosecution independent of their agency or service to which higher ranking members of their service have no influence even in disposition unlike military justice where the convening officer can alter judgements.

    You’d be surprised what is a lawful order under the statutes and case law.

    As for education:

    Policing around the nation: Education, Philosophy, and Practice

    About one third (30.2 percent) of police officers in the United States have a four-year college degree. A little more than half (51.8 percent) have a two-year degree, while 5.4 percent have a graduate degree.

    You might argue that we need fewer laws covering everything, but police officers are quite expert in the elements of an offense that justify citation or arrest, and his discretion in enforcing, is just that, his discretion.

  8. ImProPer says:

    And they’re in a culture where they view themselves in a “war.”

    Because they are in a “war” a proxy war waged by cultural “influencers”, and inept politicians, heavy on rhetoric and light on logic. Trumpism or Marxism doesn’t need to be “fought”, in fact fighting is their objective, it is all they have, it takes highly competent individuals to lead in modern Democracy, and that precludes the formentioned. We make the mistake at our peril, to see it framed in the good vs. evil theme desired by its ministers of propaganda, it is actually just a simple play for vain glory and power. Law enforcement are just dupes in this process. For the ones who are not, and on the side of Libery, and justice, thank you, and right now the wall of moms can use your help.

  9. ImProPer says:

    It may distress you that every police officer/special agent has a commission or warrant (depending on laws covering agency) with independent arrest powers within the jurisdiction and administrative policies of their agency.
    I don’t find this distressing. The thing I find distressing, is that federal agents, and contractors are evidently being used as political weapons against protesters, and the wishes of a State and local Government.

  10. JKB says:

    Well, there were quite a few USMA grads directing troops in this attack on actual peaceful protestors. Many who even today are acclaimed, even lionized. One who refused the man who had saved his life in battle. Is this the “higher standard”? No reports of military officers refusing orders to move against US civilians. No reports of military officers even showing due care for men who had served with and under them. And these protestors were not seeking to overthrow the order, just what had been promised them when they had stood and served in the original DC globalist misadventure

  11. Liberal Capitalist says:

    I grew up white ( and still am, for that matter) but I grew up poor. I never experienced a friendly benevolent police, because poor in Detroit is..
    well, you saw 8 Mile.

    This is one of the reasons that the black US flag with one blue stripe infuriates me to no end.

    It says: “it’s us vs them”. And there is a whole lot less cops making up “us”, so by definition, the police develop a siege mentality.

    Add to that vets from the middle east wars, body armor and high powered weapons and Americans become the enemy. Step up, and you will be put down with overwhelming force. Resist force, and by definition that becomes a crime. If you are not hospitalized (or dead), you are imprisoned.

    The “thin blue line”thinking in the USA must stop.

  12. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Michael Cain:

    This was a thing that I had to get used to in Colorado.

    10 years ago, when we moved there, we laughed because the evening news had stories about getting a cat out of a tree.

    Now, multiple shootings, and SUVs driving through protestors.

    Welcome to the rest of America.

  13. Kingdaddy says:

    Back in the late 1970s, I grew up in a sleepy suburb in Southern California. It was never a hotbed of demonstrations or riots. The big event every year was a festival celebrating the strawberry crop, a nostalgic nod to times when there were more farms than sub-divisions.

    My grandmother worked for the police department, typing police reports. I visited her at work one day. To see where she worked, I had to go behind the front desk to an area that you couldn’t see when, as an average citizen, you visited the uniformed professionals who were supposed to be serving the public, keeping them safe.

    In this more private area, there was a hand-drawn picture on the wall of a police officer, in riot gear, beating a protester. The protester was on the ground, sitting up, armed raised to protect himself from the blow. The police officer was standing over him, arm upraised, ready to deliver a blow with a billy club with all the force he could muster.

    I went back to my safe, suburban home, deeply shaken. My grandmother, with whom I lived at the time, did not understand why I was as upset as I was.

  14. ImProPer says:

    JKB, “globalist misadventure”
    Is “globalist” still an official buzzword word, after the 3.5 year trade war with virtually all of our classic allies, and trading partners? Surely even those who were totally ignorant to the findings of virtually all macro economists, from Adam Smith to the freshmen of today, can see that “globalism” might not be the hob goblin is has been made to be. Even the President himself is constantly trying to take credit for its economic consequences.
    In the event of any negative ones, perhaps the Federal forces fighting our citizens can be repurposed to protect us from them, rather than ourselves, huh? Win for team America!!!

  15. ImProPer says:

    In this more private area, there was a hand-drawn picture on the wall of a police officer, in riot gear, beating a protester. The protester was on the ground, sitting up, armed raised to protect himself from the blow. The police officer was standing over him, arm upraised, ready to deliver a blow with a billy club with all the force he could muster.

    I went back to my safe, suburban home, deeply shaken. My grandmother, with whom I lived at the time, did not understand why I was as upset as I was.

    Kingdaddy, a very different time, sir. Now a days, those that are coming of age see nearly limitless video of similar actions, as well as violent crime, depending on the point the reaction the poster is trying to make.

  16. Chris Franzoso says:


    Sorry, but your story is so full of BS, I had to put hip waders on…you make it sound like military offices are some kind of supreme beings….you are not… I saw your LinkedIn Profile…you failed out of West Point, but so desperately anted to be an offices, cuz, I bet you feel so seperior…to those enlisted folks…I bet you were a joy as on officer…I served, USN 85-91. One of those Petty Officers you describe….we so lacked the wisdom and knowledge of you officers….Nuclear Trained Machinist Mate, MM2/SS….Then you finished a BS and an MS in Poly Sci just to get into the Army as an officer….you so wanted to be ab offcer…didn’t you…??? So, you have a PhD. in Poly SCi, and know nothing about policing at any level…right? Of, before I forget, what law is it that prevents officers from following illegal or unconstitutional orders? I’ve heard of the UCMJ, but that isn’t really a law….right….I’m not sure how you would be able to determine if an order is unconstitutional or not. That’s kinda up to judges…and, Mr. Poly Sci, the Constitution really is only to set up and control the power of the Federal Govt. Don’t really think some O-3 is equipped to determine if an order violates the constitution. Even the two dummies in the story didn’t understand that. Maybe that’s not taught at the academies. So, while I could go on, it’s pointless. You are obviously anti-Trump from your dum arse comment about Pompeo (remember, he made it thought, and you did not) , so using logic on you is pointless…..I knew most officers were dum blow-hards whose daddies got them into an academy with a big check to their congressman, and you continue to prove my theory….Chris F, BS Chemical Engineering, MBA, MSPM…see, even technicians can get college degrees…

  17. An Interested Party says:

    And certainly surplus military items being sold to local law enforcement does nothing to clarify the difference between cops and soldiers…it is hardly surprising that the line between the two has gotten blurred…

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “You’d be surprised what is a lawful order under the statutes and case law.”

    No, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong about that. I’ve been aware of how fwkt up conservatives have made the country for a long time now.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kingdaddy: A saying emerged about the time of your story that went something to the effect of ‘starting college in 1970 was like coming into town the day after the circus left.’

    Having grown up in not-very-sleepy-at-all Seattle and in fact, also started college in 1970, I have to admit, you DO have to have been there to really get it. At least I think so.-

  20. de stijl says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Read Radley Balko. Check his back-catalog.

    Works for WaPo now. Has written books on the militarization of police forces and how that is a really bad decision. That and how SWAT teams are utilized to enforce warrants on low level charges and how that can escalate.

    How cops differentiate us and them. How that leads to bad outcomes.