Policing in the United States has grown and changed over hundreds of years. Here’s why the militarization of police doesn’t necessarily keep us safer.
Law enforcement has not always been a formal, government-run entity in the United States. The early American form of policing was akin to that seen in England during colonial times, consisting of volunteer groups and privately funded part-time officers. Urbanization and the growth of cities resulted in the development of centralized municipal police departments; the first being created by the city of Boston in 1838. On the federal level, the United States Marshals Service existed as the sole law enforcement apparatus of the federal government until the end of the Civil War. Reconstruction brought about the creation of the Department of Justice and shortly thereafter the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The professionalization of law enforcement in America has continued over the past 100 years, resulting in numerous federal agencies and almost every local and state jurisdiction having their own law enforcement agency.
Today, there are currently more than 18,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. These agencies employ over 420,000 law enforcement officers tasked with protecting public safety in our communities. Each year, law enforcement conducts over 10 million arrests, resulting in more than 600,000 admissions to state or federal prisons. These activities cost taxpayers over $126 billion each year for federal, state, and local police protection. It is essential that we ensure that these investments in public safety are focused on maintaining a safe and orderly society where individual liberty and property rights are secure.
The Rise of the Militarization of Police
What is Police Militarization?
Police militarization is defined by scholars as the “process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.” This process tangibly occurs when a civilian police force adopts the equipment, operational tactics, mindsets, or culture of the military.
Public Opinion of Police
Public awareness and coverage of police militarization has largely focused on the acquisition of military equipment by police, such as armored vehicles, aircraft, and weapons. Since the early 1990s, the Department of Defense’s 1033 programhas provided local law enforcement agencies access to military-grade equipment. This program, now expandedby President Trump after President Obama attempted to limit its use, allows local law enforcement agencies to receive excess Department of Defense equipment that would otherwise be destroyed because it was no longer useful to the military. Over 8,000 law enforcement agencies have utilized the 1033 program to access more than $6 billion worth of military equipment such as night-vision goggles, machine guns, armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and military aircraft. Other items that can be accessed by local law enforcement agencies through the program include field packs, canteens, sleeping bags, and ponchos.
The increased use of military equipment has coincided with an increased use of military tactics, such as SWAT teams and no-knock raids, by law enforcement agencies. In recent years, police departments from Ferguson, Charlotte, and Southampton have received criticism for their use of military tactics. One study found that use of paramilitary-style teams by law enforcement increased by more than 1,400 percent since 1980.
The Potential Dangers of Police Militarization
The increased militarization of police has occurred alongside a significant decline in public trust for law enforcement agencies. While the public continues to respect their own community’s law enforcement agencies, public confidence and trust in law enforcement as an institution have decreased since the early 2000s. In a national survey from 2016, a majority of Americans stated that they believe the use of military equipment by police is “going too far.” This same study also found that most Americans believe that police should be required to receive a warrant before conducting a search of homes and vehicles or monitoring phone calls. This erosion of public confidence in law enforcement and low support for militarization impedes law enforcement’s ability to effectively secure public safety.
Police Militarization Statistics
Drawing conclusions about the impact of militarization on public safety and police use of force is difficult because research on this topic is both scarce and mixed. One study from 2017 found that every 10 percent increase in the value of military equipment received by a county results in 5.9 fewer crimes per 100,000 residents. However, when looking at military-grade weapons specifically, the same study found that receipt of these weapons had minimal or no deterrent impact on crime. Multiple studies have confirmed concerns about the militarization of police, showing that it results in law enforcement using higher levels of force against citizens. Overall, police militarization statisticsseem to suggest that utilizing certain types of military equipment may result in reduced crime within a community but increased use of force by police officers against community members.
The responses of many jurisdictions following the incidents in Ferguson are illustrative of other problems with the militarization of police: infringements upon federalism and a lack of oversight by the people law enforcement is sworn to serve and protect. For example, to secure equipment through the 1033 program, law enforcement agencies send applications directly to state coordinators in each jurisdiction. This allows local law enforcement agencies to acquire the military equipment, purchased with federal tax dollars, without any appropriate oversight by state lawmakers or local city officials. The current structure of the 1033 program allows law enforcement agencies to circumvent the traditional principles of federalism and avoid the appropriations process meant to protect citizens from excessive government spending.
Furthermore, regulations that accompany the receipt of property under the 1033 program create perverse incentives for local law enforcement agencies to ensure they are able to retain the property for their department’s use. First, police must use any property acquired through the program within one year of receipt, otherwise they must return it to the Department of Defense. Second, law enforcement agencies are responsible for all of the transportation, maintenance, and conversion costs of this equipment. Although the initial zero cost for the equipment may be appealing, the insurance, fuel, storage, training, and cost to convert the equipment for law enforcement’s use can be extremely high. In some instances, these costs are too expensive for many jurisdictions to justify retaining the equipment if it is not being used on a frequent basis. This creates an incentive for the agency to utilize the equipment in circumstances where it may not appropriate or reasonably necessary simply to justify its retention by the agency. It also encourages police to shift resources away from catching individuals who are the largest threat to public safety to activities that will reap financial benefitsfor the department through civil asset forfeiture or seizure of property associated with low-level drug possession.
The rise of police militarization can also be detrimental to the recruitment of quality candidates for law enforcement agencies. Agencies from across the country have received criticism in recent years for the creation of recruitment videos showing SWAT raids and the use of military equipment. This reinforces counterproductive thought patterns in the minds of officers and attracts potential candidates which are more excited about using military equipment against “bad guys” than helping their local communities. This will dissuade more community-minded individuals from applying for open police roles, reducing law enforcement’s ability to build positive community relationships, which have been shown to improve perceptions of police, increase police effectiveness, and increase reporting of crimes by victims.
The Unsubstantiated Argument for Police Militarization
Proponents of police militarization typically argue that the rise of gangs and cartels has resulted in the use of more sophisticated and deadly weapons by criminals, necessitating more heavily armed officers. While research clearly shows that gang membership and activity have both increased, the evidence does not support the assertion that more dangerous weapons are being used during criminal activity.
Almost 75 percent of homicides that occurred in 2016 involved either a handgun or a non-firearm weapon other than explosives. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program shows that the number of homicides committed with a firearm between 1994 and 2016 decreased by more than 32 percent. The number of robberies and aggravated assaultsinvolving a firearm declined by more than 40 percent over that same time period. Assault weapons, or semi-automatic weapons with military-style features, are used in only a few crimes. One study from 2017 found that they account for as little as 2 percent of the guns used in a crime. While we all want our law enforcement officers to come home safely each night, it is not the case that those committing crimes are using more dangerous weapons during the commission of those criminal acts.
How to Overcome the Militarization of Police
It is law enforcement’s role to guard the public against criminal wrongdoers and restore order, but officers should avoid the use of excessive force, ensure individual due process protections, and respect the moral dignity of every person. In recent years, law enforcement agencies across the country have increasingly adopted tactics, equipment, and a culture that is more akin to those seen in the branches of our military. This current trend has resulted in a clear decrease in legitimacy and trust between communities and law enforcement. When a community does not trust those tasked with protecting their public safety, this negatively impacts law enforcement’s ability to achieve its goals. Proper policing practices require that law enforcement build positive relationshipswith their community, respect civil liberties, and avoid tactics which encourage the use of excessive force against citizens.