Sunday Commentary: Study Links Militarization of Police to Violence

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.

This week, , two authors of a recent study, write in the Washington Post and ask the crucial question, “When law enforcement agencies are increasingly militarized, do officers become more violent?” 

(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:

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 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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Howard P

    I’d believe this more if the data came from 1930’s to 1940 vs.  1950’s-60’s.

    Per capita, I’d say the greatest police violence occurred in late 50’s-early 70’s, rather than 1990’s on.

    We just hear about it more today.

    1. John Hobbs

      You’re very wrong. The civil rights marchers and war protesters garnered their fair share of abuse, but   not the daily executions we see in US cities now. Not including the civilians killed as a result of rioting where all the circumstances make determining “guilt” almost impossible, cops killed between 25 and 40 civil rights and anti-war protesters in the 1960s. As of this morning US cops have killed 599 people, this year.

      1. Howard P

        Silly me… saw the word “violence”… the term I used… should have realized the word “killing” was intended… my bad.  I stand corrected…

        As to killings by police in the 50’s, 60’s… are those killed by those police wearing white robes and hoods (ostensibly ‘off-duty’) included in that?   The killings alleged, but not charged/prosecuted?  Do your most recent numbers include those where the civilian shot first, and were subsequently killed by ‘return fire’?  

        Did you miss the phrase ‘per capita’?

        1. David Greenwald

          But again Howard, the question is the impact of a specific program on the level of police violence.  That’s what the study focused on.

        2. David Greenwald

          From the article: “This paper provides the first attempt to analyze whether and to what extent military transfers have increased the propensity by which LEAs cause “undue or unnecessary harm.””

        3. David Greenwald

          “Estimating a series of regressions, we find that 1033 receipts are associated with both an increase in the number of observed police killings in a given year as well as the change in the number of police killings from year to year, controlling for a battery of pos- sible confounding variables including county wealth, racial makeup, civilian drug use, and violent crime.”

    2. Howard P

      There is also another ‘inconvenient fact’…

      Those committing crimes ‘militarized’ with better “firepower” before police did (organized crime used ‘tommy guns’ before police had them, back in the late 20’s, early 30’s).

      NRA protected their (those committing crimes) rights to do so [indirectly]… not just weaponry, but also teflon coated bullets… huge magazine clips.  Police had to add more sophisticated body armor to their ‘tools’… now ‘standard equipment’.

      Seem to remember the quote, don’t bring a knife to agunfight’.

      Sandy Hook… Orlando… Aurora… etc., etc.

      Yeah … police should be limited to batons… more righteous… and maybe they shouldn’t have batons…

      The issue is not weaponry… it is the human being using them…


      1. David Greenwald

        “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.”

  2. Tia Will

    One might think that police are universally in favor of more military type gear. However, this is not necessarily true and in some cases is far more nuanced. Our own Chief Pytel had previously spoken in favor of obtaining the MRAP, and yet, at the most recent Vanguard Conclave, spoke about the downsides to the development of a “warrior cop” mentality. I appreciate his ability to consider multiple facets of a difficult issue.

  3. Tia Will

    The question that I would ask with regard to that is : In the intervening interval, how many situations have required the use of an MRAP in which one has not been available in Davis ?

    1. David Greenwald

      And the question I have of concern as I hear complaints about overly aggressive police raids, is how many situations would have seen the use of MRAP if we had it.

  4. Todd Edelman

    The police are military. The arms industry is – as always – loving being the supplier to all sides. The excess equipment requires expensive ammunition and replacement parts, encourages all opponents to up-equip, and stimulates the purchase of similar products when these run out.

    How many times have DPD or the other forms of military fired guns in Davis in the last few years? How many guns have been fired upon them? How much money does DPD on bullets – for practice? Has there been a study to determine the effects of the disarming of the typical front-line police – e.g. the Bobbies of Britain, who have an armed response team available within minutes – in communities with low amounts of violence with very low use of firearms?

      1. Alan Miller

        While not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, I think TE’s point may be that, seen from the perspective of the Brit, our police would appear to be militarized, by the fact they carry guns and bullets.

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