Images of the confrontation between law enforcement officers and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., made “police militarization” a catchphrase three years ago after the shooting death of a young black man by a policeman.
Photographs of lines of police officers equipped with war-fighting gear and supported by armored vehicles led to critics calling for an end to a policy whereby the Pentagon gave surplus equipment to police to assist in the battle against the illegal drug trade, and later to fight terrorism.
The outcry after Ferguson resulted in President Barack Obama sharply curtailing the program. Ever since, police officials have urged the program be restored. On Monday, President Donald Trump did just that. He had promised as much during the presidential campaign, citing rampant increases in crime in America. Data doesn’t back that up, despite hotspots of criminal violence in Chicago and some other cities. According to FBI statistics, there have been significant drops in violent crime and property crime since the early 1990s. That’s not the perception of the public, however, which regularly is the case. And who tried to claim that grenade launchers and bayonets and weapons using ammunition .50-caliber and above were needed by police?
There was, though, proof enough that there are drug lords and terrorists who would utilize whatever weaponry they could acquire to further their aims. And it’s not like police departments and sheriff’s offices were clamoring for bayonets. As for armored vehicles, they wanted those.
But what about the actual effects of providing military equipment to police? That had never been studied — until now.
On Wednesday, the University of Tennessee’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research issued a release on a study published in the current issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. It was written by Matt Harris, Jinseong Park, Don Bruce and Matt Murray and titled “Peacekeeping Force: Effects of Providing Tactical Equipment to Local Law Enforcement.”
The paper is the first to evaluate the consequences for local communities of local law enforcement agencies acquiring military armaments through the Pentagon-to-police equipment program. The federal government has transferred more than $5.2 billion in decommissioned tactical military gear to local law enforcement agencies since 2006.
The finding: The acquisition of surplus military equipment through the U.S. Department of Defense Law Enforcement Support Officers 1033 Program does not cause police to be more aggressive.
Results indicate that acquisition of tactical items from the federal government reduces citizen complaints and assaults on police officers, and does not lead to increases in offender deaths. But the authors add caveats. They stress that the limitations of the paper are as important as the findings.
“The paper is not a referendum on police militarization, which is the product of several factors including who is hired, training, leadership, procedures, practices, department culture, equipment and other factors,” Harris said. “We only consider the role of a single factor — surplus military equipment acquired from the federal government.”
Harris described the key takeaways: “While the military kit makes for a striking image, our findings imply that the path to improving police-community relations is about the people, not the equipment. Second, more oversight and transparency are needed. Our research used the best available data, which was quite limited in some instances.
“Police departments are funded by the public to provide a public service in the form of public safety. Knowledge of equipment acquisition and the good and bad outcomes resulting from that provision should be public, and informed by standardized reporting practices.”
Bottom line, hardware makes a difference but the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies ultimately depends on their people — just like with any organization.