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The Consequences of Law Enforcement Reform: Avoiding the “Hollow Force”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mark Kling & Linda-Marie Sundstrom
June 15, 2021

After a year of contentious debate surrounding law enforcement (following the death of George Floyd), departments across the country are seeking options to reform law enforcement agencies. These reforms need to be carefully considered to avoid the devastating consequences of the “Hollow Force” paradigm that impacted the military for decades and that could compromise the readiness of our nation’s law enforcement agencies to protect and serve our communities.

The History of the “Hollow Force”

In the 1970’s, post-Vietnam War, United States soldiers were reviled here at home. Many were called “baby killers” and spat upon based on the well-publicized, horrific actions of a few during the war. With morale low, experienced personnel left and it became increasingly difficult to attract qualified recruits. This resulted in personnel shortages. In addition, across-the-board budget cuts created deficiencies in training, equipment and equipment maintenance. Overall, a new and prevalent, negative public opinion of the military created political pressure to decrease military funding.

This began a period in our nation’s military history known as the “Hollow Forces.” This phenomenon adversely impacted the readiness of our military to carry out its mission. It was characterized by several conditions including:

  • Low public support.
  • Difficulty finding new recruits.
  • Poor morale.
  • Pressure to cut spending.

Although the military was seemingly intact on the exterior, the internal readiness was becoming a hollowed-out force.

The Second “Hollow Force”

In the 1980s, the military was re-built, and the prowess of our rebuilt armed forces resulted in winning both the Cold War and the Gulf War. With seemingly all enemies vanquished, there was a view that military funding should be converted to domestic social spending. The term “Peace Dividend” became popular. By the 1990s, the military readiness again appeared intact on the exterior, but internal readiness was compromised—and this became the second “Hollow Force.” Unfortunately, this occurred at a time when the need for United States military deployments suddenly became critical, once again.

The Problem of “Salami-Slicing” Budgets

The two “Hollow Force” periods for the military left our country vulnerable. They resulted from short-term, public and political reactions to long-term strategic issues. Instead of reforming and reshaping specific aspects of the defense structure, the approach taken was, as United States Secretary of Defense Gates called it, “Salami-slicing,” where percentages of the budgets were simply cut off the top everywhere without consideration for mission readiness. These one-size-fits-all decisions lacked strategic thinking—rather they were reactions to vocal community groups and politicians. The political pressure to cut spending added to the second hollowing-out of the military.

Currently, we may be seeing local law enforcement agencies beginning to face a “Hollow Forces” situation of their own across the country, which may impact their own readiness to protect and serve their communities.

Can “Defund the Police” Lead to the “Hollow Force?”

Like the military in the 1970s and 1990s, law enforcement is currently experiencing a similar phenomenon including:

  • Low public support.
  • Difficulty finding new recruits.
  • Poor morale.
  • Pressure to cut spending.

As we have learned from history, if we trade systematic, strategic analysis to pinpoint and address specific issues, for blanket solutions put forth by the vocal groups and politicians, we may compromise the readiness of law enforcement to protect and serve—thus creating the “Hollow Force” for law enforcement. For safety purposes in our country, we cannot end up with police departments that politically look good on paper, but whose internal readiness cannot adequately serve and protect the public.

The Real Work of Police

The United States has a population of approximately 330 million people. There are approximately 800,000 full time police officers with only a third working at any one time. A nationwide New York Times study (2020) determined that police officers only spend 4% of their time responding to violent crime. By comparison, more than 50% of their time is spent on traffic-related and non-criminal calls. Even less visible are the times they rescue people in trouble, save children’s lives and protect people from those who would prey upon them. Putting the role of law enforcement in context is a critical baseline to create before proceeding with reform recommendations. By not seeing the complete picture and building public opinion from only a few well-publicized actions of law enforcement, we may be creating “Hollow Force” police departments that cannot fulfill vital services—except on paper.

Considerations to Avoid the “Hollow Force”

The military solved their “Hollow Force” problems by:

  • Public Support: Increasing public support by developing transparent performance monitoring and correction.
  • Recruitment: Developing strategies to recruit high quality personnel.
  • Morale: Providing personnel with high-quality training and support; and
  • Funding: Allocating funding judiciously to obtain the necessary equipment and superior level of standards.

Unfortunately, these strategies were implemented after the damage had already been done to the nation’s military ranks. The goal now is to learn from past mistakes and formulate real solutions that include a complete perspective of the situation before endorsing a solution and a path forward. Agencies addressing real problems with law enforcement should work strategically, and learn from these experiences, before a “Hollow Force” is created.


Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

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