Standing before a crowd of SWAT teams from across Ohio, Dave Grossman addressed the annual Ohio Tactical Officers Association’s conference with his trademark passion, pacing back and forth before the crowd.
“You fight violence. What do you fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence, yeah? Violence is your tool. Violence is your enemy. Violence is the realm we operate in. You are men and women of violence. You must master it, or it will destroy you, yeah?” Grossman told the crowd, as they nodded along in agreement.
Later, Grossman tells the gathered officers that his students have the best sex of their lives after they kill someone, or disperse a crowd. Scattered chuckles pepper the crowd, but Grossman isn’t laughing. “Both partners are very invested in some very intense sex,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot of perks that come with this job. You find one, relax and enjoy it.”
Footage from Grossman’s lecture appears in Craig Atkinson’s 2016 film about police practice and militarization, Do Not Resist.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is no amateur trainer on the fringes of law enforcement training. He is a retired U.S. Army Ranger, the namesake and main figure in online courses from Grossman Academy, the developer of and speaker at “Bulletproof Warrior” training sessions, the director of the Killology Research Group, holds memberships with the American Board for Certification in Homeland Security and the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute, and was formerly a professor at West Point.
According to his bio on the Killology website, Grossman is an “internationally recognized scholar, author, soldier, and speaker who is one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of human aggression and the roots of violence and violent crime.”
Today, Grossman, who invented the term “Killology,” records and distributes his “Warrior Training” and “On Combat” lectures through online courses via the The Grossman Academy, and “in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks he is on the road almost 300 days a year, training elite military and law enforcement organizations worldwide about the reality of combat.”
Atkinson told me Grossman was the self-proclaimed number one trainer of law enforcement in the country. “While his isn’t the only training methodology out there,” said Atkinson, “it’s definitely had an impact on our law enforcement.”
The reach of Grossman’s lectures and lessons stretch even further when examined on the ground: According to his public CV on Killology.org he has spoken and presented to the FBI or police over one thousand times from 1996 to 2013, which equates to speaking to law enforcement about once every five days over the course of 17 years.
This doesn’t include the over 200 times from 1992 to 2013 that he also spoke at universities and colleges, the more than 300 times he presented to U.S. armed forces over a similar period, or even the more than 260 times he spoke at “Educational, Youth, Civic & Service Organizations.” When I spoke to Lieutenant Glen Mills of the Burlington Police Department in Massachusetts, where Grossman presented in 2013, he believed it was even more than that.
Again, Grossman’s reach doesn’t extend to law enforcement alone. As Evan Osnos wrote in his recent New Yorker piece on the business of guns after the Orlando shooting, after showing up at a gun show, “The biggest crowd turned up for Dave Grossman, a prolific author who has taught psychology at West Point.” In his book On Combat, Grossman described society as populated by three groups – sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.
In that book, Grossman wrote that “If you want to be a sheep, then you can be a sheep and that is okay. But you must understand the price you pay. When the wolf comes, you and your loved ones are going to die if there is not a sheepdog there to protect you.”
This idea inspired T-shirts and even a fictional scene in the film American Sniper where Chris Kyle’s father tells him his aggression is a gift.
Grossman, standing before the same crowd in Do Not Resist, told the audience:
“You ever heard the old saying it’s gotta get worse before it gets better? Oh, it’s going to get worse folks. We are at war and you are the front line troops of this war. And folks, I want you to understand something. When they come to murder the children, the individuals who tried to disarm our cops will be hunted down and across the nation they will be attacked, they will be spit on, they will be driven deep into their slimy little holes so they never come out again.”
For the most part, there is no “typical” training process for American law enforcement.
“We are the most decentralized law enforcement country on Earth with over 18,000 different law enforcement agencies and many, many types of training,” says Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science, in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
On average, Haberfeld says, basic academy training for police spans about 15 weeks, with some agencies requiring training for as long as 32 weeks — some as few as nine weeks.
“Very little time is dedicated to police community relations, the ability to communicate effectively or to control your own emotions. Very little time, if any, is dedicated to leadership training and practically no time to stress management. In sum, it is much more of a military type of orientation that anything else,” she says.
David Weisburd, executive director of the Center for Evidence-based Crime Policy at George Mason University, told Politifact that “while some do fine work, the quality ranges widely. There is little consistency in training or procedures across them…There are many departments that simply poorly train and lead their officers.”
Dr. Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology, as well as an affiliated professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, says “the most distinctive aspect of American police training is its short length.” He contrasts this with other countries that not only take different areas of training into consideration but also train police for a longer period.
“In most European countries, one cannot become an armed police officer without spending at least two years in a national police academy. Essentially, countries in Northern Europe provide ‘colleges for cops,” says Dr. Hirshfield.
Ed Allen, a training manager at the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), told me typical training “consists of subjects like case law, evidence collection, statutory law, problem solving and community policing, communication and de-escalation, response to resistance, tactics, driving, firearms, etc. Recurring training requirements also vary by state and agency, but typically there are minimum hours required each year.”
The people of color who have been shot and killed by police officers at this point, and the questionable circumstances regarding many of their deaths, have become almost commonplace in the US. Indeed, a young black male is 21 times more likely than their white counterpart to be shot dead by a police officer.
It is instances such as those above that prompted President Obama on December 18, 2014, to sign an executive order establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Obama charged the task force with identifying “best practices and offering recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”
Of the six pillars that the task force identified as being key to creating a 21st-century police force, one was police education and training. While they discussed the following items and recommendations in depth within the report, the task force noted that they made particular recommendations for basic recruit and in-service training, as well as leadership development.
After Trump’s election, it seems it’s more likely the administration’s idea of policing will trend towards Grossman’s ideology rather than the aforementioned areas.
Trump, who billed himself as a “law and order” candidate, received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOB) in the election.The FOB vocally opposes the retraining of officers along the lines of the “30 Guiding Principles” of de-escalation promoted by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.
According to reporting by The Stranger, “As Seattle protested Trump’s victory, at least a few Seattle police officers were celebrating it on social media. One called out the mayor’s reaction to Trump’s win as ‘one of the most pathetic political episodes I’ve ever seen.’ Another officer wrote, ‘Restore law and order and it’s ok to say stop being a pussy. This is a great day for law enforcement… I’m pumped.’”
Minutes after Trump’s inauguration, mentions of criminal justice reform disappeared from the White House website, replaced with an issue page entitled “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community.” The page goes on to note “the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it”, which can be read as an all but explicit endorsement of the idea Blue Lives Matter and a rejection of those who participate in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet Trump, and the federal government, only have limited say in how police departments conduct themselves in regards to training. There are around eighteen thousand police departments in the US, which operate independently of the federal government and who are governed by local law enforcement agencies. This means that while there are base levels of training, any supplemental training, and what that training is on, is left up to local decision makers. This makes Grossman’s decades-long tour around the country, providing supplemental trainings that on various levels teach officers to be less hesitant when using lethal force and be willing to do it more quickly, all the more noteworthy.
V-Academy is a service hosting virtual training for law enforcement and housing the digital Grossman Academy under its umbrella. In their promotional video, Grossman appears and is referred to as a “top law enforcement expert.”
The performance objectives are to “understand the physiological and psychological ramifications of engaging in combat. Understand the effects of killing on one’s mental and physical well-being.” In doing so, participants “will be able to understand what it takes to prepare for the life and death encounter of combat.”
As Grossman said in his talk, “So you do this, on your way home that night, park your vehicle in the overpass for just a minute. Step out of your vehicle for just a minute. Look out on your city. Look at your citizens going about their lives and know deep in your gut that today, at the risk of your life, you made their world a better place whether they know it or not. Then walk up that bridge rail, put your hands on that rail. Look out on your city and let your cape blow in the wind.”
Santa Clara Sheriff Laurie Smith canceled a “Bulletproof” training after local opposition in late 2016. The training, which was going to feature Grossman, was the same one Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Philando Castille last July, attended (though that particular class was taught by Jim Glennon, one of Grossman’s business partners).
The Sheriff’s office, upon canceling the training, stated:
“Any training we sponsor must align with the values of our office to be peacemakers first and warriors second and unfortunately the recently canceled training class was not vetted fully to ensure that it aligned with our departmental values.”
The East Bay Express reported that in these trainings “instructors urged the law enforcement officers in the hotel conference room to make the decision to shoot if they ever feel their lives are threatened…Videos of bloody shootouts between police and civilians emphasized a key point: Hesitation can kill you.”
The Santa Clara Sheriff’s Department, after initially agreeing to answer my questions, never responded after I asked for further details regarding why the training was canceled and whether they thought the aforementioned approach and philosophy was appropriate for law enforcement today.
Lieutenant Mills, who saw Grossman speak before bringing him to do training at the Burlington Police Department in 2013, doesn’t believe Grossman’s training goes outside of what is reasonable. He told me that Grossman’s training, while the rhetoric it’s delivered in might give pause to civilians, is appropriate for the realities of policing and that it helped motivate the Burlington Police Department to be prepared for anything.
Lieutenant Mills told me that “having superior equipment and training could actually reduce some of the shootings of civilians as officers with superior training, tactics, equipment and yes, even firepower can more easily de-escalate, negotiate and safely resolve crises.” According to Mills, the regional SWAT team of the Burlington PD has been able to peacefully resolve situations for decades because they have every advantage available to them.
Atkinson, whose father was a SWAT officer, heard a different opinion from various officers he talked to over the course of his filming. In one lecture, Grossman told officers to “not be afraid of getting sued,” as “that was just a chance for overtime.” There does seem to be a group of officers that are divorcing themselves from this type of rhetoric because, Atkinson contends, it’s getting officers and people killed unnecessarily. “When we were in Ohio,” says Atkinson, “we spoke to the Ohio State Patrol team, whose leader, asked me, ‘Oh, did you see Dave Grossman? Is he still teaching that same rhetoric?’”
The Grossman Academy and Grossman’s other endeavors take a specific view of the state of police today and how police should deal with obstacles. That being said, this isn’t a blanket approach by other third party organizations training police.
Ed Allen, a Training Manager at the National Tactical Officers Alliance (NTOA), told me that, in contrast to Professor Haberfeld’s comment that third party training doesn’t happen often, “generally speaking, it is quite common for agencies to outsource training. Specifically for more advanced or technical subjects or when an agency is striving to meet a national standard.”
Atkinson says the NTOA is working to create “national SWAT standards”, and is working to draw the line between what is acceptable in training and what isn’t.
Grossman’s representatives declined multiple requests over a number of months to interview him regarding these areas and his rhetoric. Today, it’s worth asking about whether this is the environment of training we want to create not only for police, but also for civilians, educators, and others. The solution seems to be more guns for civilians, an increase in embracing the necessity for violence as a “sheepdog”, and the training of police in such a way that killing is a reasonable means to address provocation, rather than taking a measured approach as the actor that comes into daily contact with civilians and has a state-sanctioned monopoly on legalized violence. While this is certainly not a black or white situation, and best practices may lie somewhere between these areas, what is clear is that more questions need to be asked about how our police are being trained, if nothing else. We live in a time that warrants scrutiny such as this, and the examination of police training is a missing link between our regular debates about police militarization and practice. In the case of Dave Grossman, it’s worth asking a simple question: Are we comfortable with this being the type of training our law enforcement engages in?
Grossman’s second and final appearance in Do Not Resist ends with him telling the audience, “In the very near future, the idiots are going to try to disarm our cops! Folks, there ain’t nobody in Mexico complaining about the militarization of police, you understand? There ain’t nobody in Russia complaining about the militarization of police. In the very near future, you will be vindicated. The bad news is the wolf is at the door and very bad times are coming. The good news? You have job security because the world desperately needs what you have to give.”
The audience gives him a standing ovation.
Benjamin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn and is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Complex, the Huffington Post, GOOD Magazine, and others. He regularly writes about politics, technology, and policing. You can find more of his writing on his website.