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Examining the Breakdown of Trust in Military and First Responders

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By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University 

In the years following 9/11, the military, police, and fire service benefited greatly from the patriotism caused by this tragic event. For example, there was a significant increase in volunteers who filled jobs to serve their fellow citizens. The sacrifices made by military members and first responders did not go unnoticed and gratitude from the public made these demanding jobs a little more rewarding. However, are those days coming to an end?

I recently read an article about why citizens should not “worship” the military. From preferred parking spots at grocery stores to thanking military members for their service, these platitudes are described as perpetuating the superior virtue of military. I disagree and believe that this type of rhetoric is contributing to a palpable decrease in citizen support for the military and first responders.

As an Army veteran and former law enforcement officer, I am convinced that public support and trust is essential for maintaining public safety. Public support must occur for public safety organizations to exist and function effectively. I agree that things are far from perfect. Turning on the news to hear stories of social unrest, political division, and misconduct by those in power can shake anyone’s trust in those who are supposed to protect us. However, it is important to look at the deeper issues that have resulted in the loss of trust in our military and first responders.

Social Movements Impact Perceptions of Police and Military

Today’s movements such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Equal Pay are bringing much-needed attention to social injustices. These social movements and technology are looked at as the drivers of change. Twitter and live-streaming on social media can instantly spread any issue to the masses and feed our need for belonging with the click of a button. However, media attention on some of these movements many times show military and police officers in a bad light, which has tarnished the reputation of police and caused confusion in military organizations. While social movements highlight the crucial need for change, it should be noted that most military and police officers are caring, law-abiding individuals like you and me. Trust and support must be rebuilt if officers are to protect citizens to the best of their abilities.

[Related: Rebuilding Trust in Officers Through Community Policing]

Disillusionment with Government

The movements mentioned above, “too close to call” elections, and claims of election fraud have divided the nation, causing a breakdown of trust on all sides. Distrust in government and democracy itself is on the rise, not just in the U.S. but across the globe. The military and first responders are often seen as the face of government, making them potential targets for those who distrust the government. This is exemplified by the attacks against ROTC offices during the Vietnam era and more recently, the divisions between police and citizens in Dallas, Texas. Many police officers are under the impression that citizens are out to get them. For example, many citizens are quick to pull out their smartphones in hopes of recording some impropriety by police. However, just as most military and first responders are caring and law-abiding, so are most citizens. Both citizens and officers must not see each other as the enemy.

[Related: React Without Reaction: What Officers Should Do When Being Recorded]

Intolerance of Different Perspectives

Today we see leaders who are short-tempered, quick to judge, and ungracious losers. These characteristics may be rubbing off on the general population as we spend less time trying to understand people with different opinions and perspectives. Instead, we spend more time on the computer or on our phones, consuming content that reinforces our particular view of the world. Research shows that many of us believe that the internet and connectedness is actually increasing potential for hate and bigotry, not social tolerance. There must be a conscious effort from military members and police officers, lawmakers and leaders, and all citizens to understand and respect the viewpoints of others. Not all disagreements need to be hostile.

What Can Citizens Do?

Continue to volunteer. There are reports of a looming crisis in the all-volunteer military where only four percent of the American people currently serve. The shortages in police officers and firefighters are also increasing. To address these deficits, agencies need improve their recruitment and retention practices; with larger groups of applicants come more qualified personnel who are more representative of the citizens they serve.

[Related: Addressing Recruitment and Hiring Practices in Law Enforcement]

When it comes to matters of government, if you don’t like what is happening in government, then change it. There are plenty of ways to be involved in government beside voting. There are military and non-military volunteer organizations and societies, police-citizen boards, and clubs. Don’t just complain, get involved.

What Should the Military and First Responders Do?

First, live up to the expectations of citizens by following your oath and continuing to serve honorably even in retirement. Military retirees should remember that they are still subject to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and should act accordingly.

Second, don’t lose hope and become cynical or disheartened by the current tensions in society. I like to remember the principles of Robert Peel, considered the father of modern policing. Peel put forth a principle that puts police-citizen, and I think military-citizen, relationships in context: “Police [and military] are citizens and citizens are the police… it is only through public approval that police [and military] can exist.”

Always Remember

Rebuilding trust in our military and first responders will be a lengthy process that requires effort from all sides, but it can be done. I remember the days of the Vietnam War, and the many following years of anti-war sentiment. The general public openly expressed a distaste and disgust for the military and military service members. Returning veterans were spat on and called baby killers.

What many citizens don’t realize is that our military and first responders are sworn to help all people. They are not policymakers or decision-makers; they are the people on the front lines working hard to protect and enforce our nation’s laws and freedoms. So, don’t let gratitude be a fading movement. Any day is a good day to say, “Thank you for your service!”

trustAbout the Author: Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the US military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor, and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with US Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the US federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit, and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2004. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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