In the United States, amongst police forces, are combat veterans more likely to abuse force than those who lack combat experience?

In my opinion, the main difficulties are in the definitions of combat experience and abuse of force.

Some observations and (subsequent) questions:

  • Do note that having military experience does not imply having combat experience. Of course, one could use the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) code, but did all veterans with an Infantry MOS who were deployed overseas actually experience combat?

  • I could google around for statistics. However, I do not know which sources are reputable. I do know that many are disreputable. For example, would you trust the data sets of someone who sees military experience as a synonym for combat experience? Are the military experiences of an infantryman and of an avionics technician even comparable?

  • One could argue that after clearing houses in Fallujah, dealing with domestic troublemakers should be relatively easy. However, the Marlboro Marine's dreams of a career in law enforcement were (allegedly) shattered by PTSD, for example. Hence, perhaps combat experience should not be binary, but on a continuous spectrum. However, how would one even quantify combat experience?

Note: closure being discussed on Meta.

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    I’m voting to close this question because this looks like more psychology than politics – SJuan76 Aug 30 '20 at 23:44
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    Comments deleted. Please keep your comments relevant to the question. This is not the place to argue about the semantics of words which don't even appear in the text of the question. – Philipp Sep 2 '20 at 7:18

I found one 2018 study finding that policemen who were former military veterans had fired their weapons more often than non-veteran policemen. The study does have a somewhat narrow geographical scope...


Researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas examined the U.S. Armed Forces records of officers in the local police department and published their report in the Journal of Public Health on Oct. 3. They billed the study as the first of its kind and found that regardless of their deployment history, cops who were military veterans were more prone to shooting incidents. Officers who were deployed were 2.9 times more likely to have fired their weapons while on duty. [...] “Results from this study suggest that veteran status, regardless of deployment history, is associated with increased odds of shootings,” the professors wrote. “There is critical need for additional studies on the relationship between veteran status, deployment history and combat experience, and officer-involved shootings.” [...]

In total, 516 cops—with and without U.S. Armed Forces experience—were examined. Close to one-third of officers involved in a shooting had a military background, researchers found. Military veterans made up 16 percent of officers who had no shooting incidents.Though 6 percent of the general population has served in the military, 19 percent of police officers are veterans, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data performed by Gregory B. Lewis and Rahul Pathak of Georgia State University for The Marshall Project. Policing is the third most common occupation for veterans, behind truck driving and management.

(Eventually) found a link the actual study https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30281075/

Also, conducting such research in the US is fairly difficult. From an earlier article from the same source:

Official data on the impact of veteran-cops is scarce. Nearly all of the 33 police departments contacted by The Marshall Project declined to provide a list of officers who had served in the military, citing laws protecting personnel records, or saying the information was not stored in any central place. The Justice Department office that dispenses grants to hire cops and study policing said it has no interest in funding research into how military experience might influence police behavior.

Since someone suggested in a comment that the ex-military are more likely to be SWAT which might explain the increased involvement in shootings, that turns out not to be the case in this study. Patrol and SWAT assignments were not (statistically) distinguishable in this regard (shootings) although administrative assignments were (much less likely to be involved in shootings).

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    If 19% of officers are veterans, but only 16% of officers who fired their gun were veterans, then I'd say it sounds like veterans are a touch less likely to shoot. But,as you note, the studied numbers are small with presumably wide error bars. – simon at rcl Aug 31 '20 at 14:07
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    @simonatrcl You’re reading that backwards: “veterans made up 16 percent of officers who had no shooting incidents”. No idea why they chose to write it that way ... – divibisan Aug 31 '20 at 15:02
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    1. "military veterans were more prone to shooting incidents" — What percentage of military veterans are actual combat veterans? More prone to shooting is not necessarily bad, as it may mean that they do not get paralyzed when faced with actual violence. 2. "military experience might influence police behavior" — Military experience? Both logistics units and assault units have military experience, but their experience is arguably very different. Hence, the term pogue. – Rodrigo de Azevedo Aug 31 '20 at 15:25
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    Officers with combat experience are probably more likely to be assigned to tactical units specializing in high-risk operations, so there might be some bias there as well. – Jörg W Mittag Aug 31 '20 at 21:17
  • @JörgWMittag: the study did include "primary responsibility (patrol, warrant-serving units/SWAT or administrative)" as a variable in their model. – Fizz Aug 31 '20 at 23:45

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