In recent years we have seen efforts by first the Davis Police (in 2014) then the Yolo County Sheriff (in 2017) to obtain an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle). In both cases the local law enforcement organization was probably sincere in wishing to protect the lives of officers as well as citizens caught up in active shooter and other situations, while at the same time wishing to assure the public that such a vehicle would not be misused.
However, in both cases, community concerns forced the local law enforcement organization to give up their pursuit of the vehicle. Davis had two 3-2 votes to return the MRAP, while the sheriff’s department decided after considerable pushback not to pursue it any further after an initial hearing in front of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
(The full study: Militarization and police violence: The case of the 1033 program by Casey Delehanty, Jack Mewhirter, Ryan Welch, Jason Wilks can be found here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2053168017712885).
The answer is telling.
The researchers look at recently published research. They define militarization as “the embrace and implementation of an ideology that stresses the use of force as a good way to solve problems. In this definition, militarization occurs along four dimensions — material, cultural, organizational and operational.”
Critically, they argue “when law enforcement receives more military materials — weapons, vehicles and tools — it becomes more militarized along the other three axes as well. They use more military language, create elite units like SWAT teams, and become more likely to jump into high-risk situations. Militarization makes every problem — even a car of teenagers driving away from a party — look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer.”
As we know, the military equipment, including the two MRAPs, comes from the 1033 Program under the 1996 National Defense Authorization Act.
“In 1998, about $9.4 million in equipment was transferred to 290 law enforcement agencies. That amount began to jump dramatically after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By 2014, 3,029 law enforcement agencies received transfers nearing $800 million in value.”
They used the FatalEncounters.org project for the police violence data, and then the 1033 transfer data acquired by the Post in a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.
They found: “Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence (such as household income, overall and black population, violent-crime levels and drug use), more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police.”
Here is the key point: “When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.”
They then ask an important question, whether they have the relationship backwards. “Could it be that law enforcement agencies that face more-violent criminals — say, counties with more organized crime — ask for and receive more military equipment? In other words, does the violence cause the militarization rather than the other way around?”
This is a critical question, but they find the answer to be a resounding “no.”
Here they look at pet killing data, reasoning that “if officers become more prone to use violence, we should also see more pets killed by police. Using the Puppycide Database Project, which tracks police shootings of pets across the United States, we found that in counties where police received more military equipment, law enforcement kills more pets.”
That, they argue, “bolsters our assessment that militarization makes police more likely to turn to violence to solve problems.”
Is that definitive? No. I would have liked to have seen them look at before and after data, but perhaps that is not available.
They also note that in response to Ferguson and the response of police in armored vehicles, wearing camouflage and using tear gas against peaceful protesters, President Obama issued Executive Order 13688, which prohibits certain equipment to local law enforcement.
But law enforcement has pushed back on these restrictions, and President Trump has vowed to reverse it.
Another interesting finding is that “other research shows that when police are militarized, they’re more likely to be attacked.”
Again, none of this is definitive, but it seems that those concerned about militarization of police leading to a creeping of tactics and violence have a point that now has empirical backing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting