Veterans Day is always an important day for us here at the office.  We strongly advocated for a Veterans court in Scottsdale modeled after the highly effective and successful Phoenix Veterans Court.  We have written extensively on the unique challenges veterans face and how services for veterans can be grossly inadequate.  When veterans do not receive the many services they need—particularly after returning from combat—such as physical and mental health care, addiction treatment, and re-integration services including job placement, housing, and a support network, they may find themselves entangled with the criminal justice system.  As defense attorneys, we see the devastating toll PTSD and other consequences of combat can have on our brave men and women and just how quick our society can be in ignoring the true human impact of war on those who return home.

This week, we grapple in the wake of our most recent tragedy out of Thousand Oaks[1] where military veteran Ian David Long shot and killed 12 people at a college bar, while another veteran lost his life trying to protect others there.  We now would like to reflect not only on the heroic acts of service of countless men and women in uniform but also on how we must do more to truly understand the consequences of combat and the unique needs of those who have lived through such an experience.  When we fail to do so, there are consequences for all facets of our society.

This blog has also previously covered police brutality—particularly, officer involved shootings—in cities across the country and including our own Mesa Police Department.  An inquiry into the contemporary culture of policing is always an important part of that conversation.  The militarization of the police as part of the War on Drugs and the infamous 1994 Crime Bill saw an end to community policing and ushered in an era of “war-zone” police tactics and an “us v. them” mentality that has undoubtedly contributed to the frame of mind behind instances of excessive use of force.

Now what do police brutality, Thousand Oaks, and Veterans Day have in common?  Well, employment opportunities for returning veterans may not be as lucrative as one might think, particularly for post 9-11 vets.  A study conducted in 2015 puts these vets at two percentage points higher than the national average unemployment rate.  According to a 2015 University of Southern California study, despite national efforts to hire more veterans and educate employers, veterans still struggle to find and keep jobs, in part because civilian employers fail to understand them.[2]  Many vets without a college degree, but with highly specialized combat and military skills, find it difficult to translate their different skill-set into the civilian workforce.  With its increasingly militarized focus, it is not surprising that many vets seek employment in law enforcement.  In fact, policing is actually the third most common occupation for veterans behind truck driving and management.3

A recent study reported on by the Marshall Project[3] suggests that police officers with military experience were more likely to fire their weapons during the course of duty.  Veteran officers who had been deployed were nearly three times more likely to fire their weapons than civilian officers; veteran officers who were not deployed were nearly two times more likely.  The Dallas study looked at records going back to January 2005 and examined 516 officers’ on-duty shooting record, as well as race, gender, age, veteran status, and branch of military, to suggest that close to one-third of officers involved in a shooting had a military background.  Previous studies conducted in Boston and Albuquerque also showed that military veteran police officers were more likely to have use of force complaints filed against them, and one-third (matching up with the Dallas study) of the 35 fatal police shootings in Albuquerque involved police officers who were military veterans.

The report calls for more studies examining the effects of combat exposure on the future behavior of veterans.  The issue is, of course, a complicated one, with solutions lying not squarely on the shoulders of veterans but on the civilian population and the cultures of civilian departments to properly understand, train, and meet the needs of returning veterans.  Our communities are not war zones, and we need to value these men and women and help them cultivate their talents upon their already-existing foundation of discipline.

This Veterans Day, let us not only celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments and sacrifices of our men and women in the armed services, but recognize our failings as a society to understand, empower, and support these folks when they return.  Let’s vow to always do better.

To get involved with organizations that strive to empower and support veterans in Maricopa County, look here: https://missioncontinues.org/get-involved/

For more information on Phoenix Veterans Court, read here: https://www.phoenix.gov/law/specialty-courts/veterans-court

[1] Dalvin Brown, ‘Fact Is I Had No Reason to Do it’: Thousand Oaks Gunman Posted to Instagram During Massacre, USA Today (Nov. 10, 2018), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/11/10/thousand-oaks-shooting-gunman-posted-instagram-during-bar-massacre/1958013002/.

[2] Heath Druzin, Report: Despite Hiring Efforts, Veterans Face Employment Obstacles and Civilian Disconnect, Stars and Stripes (May 12, 2017), https://www.stripes.com/report-despite-hiring-efforts-veterans-face-employment-obstacles-and-civilian-disconnect-1.345755.

[3] Simone Weichselbaum, Police with Military Experience More Likely to Shoot, The Marshall Project (Oct. 15, 2018), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/10/15/police-with-military-experience-more-likely-to-shoot.