New Study Findings: Militarizing Local Police Does Not Reduce Crime

New research shows that the militarization of local law enforcement through weapons, armored vehicles, combat attire, office equipment and other items provided by the Department of Defense does not reduce crime. Additionally, researchers found incomplete records and discrepancies in the federal government’s tracking of surplus military equipment, or SME, issued to local law enforcement agencies.

“Scholars rely on accurate data to track and analyze the true effect of police militarization on crime. Policymakers also need accurate data to base their decisions upon. However to-date, we do not have reliable data on SME transfers to local police and sheriffs through the federal government,” said LSU Department of Political Science Assistant Professor Anna Gunderson, who is the lead author on a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In 2014 following the police brutality protests in Ferguson, President Obama prohibited local law enforcement agencies from procuring some of the most military-like equipment, such as tracked armored vehicles and grenade launchers, from the Department of Defense. In 2017, President Trump reversed this order citing research that claimed police militarization reduces crime. Three years ago, Gunderson and coauthors at Emory University began interrogating newly released data on SME provisions through the 1033 program, which is one of the most significant federal programs that contributes to the militarization of local police and sheriffs.

“When we looked at the data and ran the replications, nothing looked like the results being cited by the Trump Administration. We spent a year trying to diagnose the problem,” Gunderson said.

She and her coauthors found significant discrepancies in the data about which law enforcement agencies have and use SME. The researchers compared a 2014 data release from National Public Radio, or NPR, and newer data from 2018 and found inconsistencies between them. For example, the NPR data recorded counties as receiving equipment like weapons, with no corresponding record in the 2018 data; and the 2018 data show some counties as receiving equipment while those counties are missing in the NPR data.

The researchers conclude that drawing firm conclusions and promoting claims about the efficacy of police militarization–especially for crime rates–based on research relying on the SME data released by the Department of Defense is unreliable. When they conducted a new analysis using updated data, the authors found no evidence that SME transfers reduce crime.

“This is a cautionary tale about the importance of oversight. The most important thing for policy makers and the public to know is that you can’t justify giving surplus military equipment to police departments on the grounds it will lead to a reduction in crime. There is no evidence for that. You can’t claim this program is important because it reduces crime,” said co-author Tom Clark, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Political Science at Emory. “If you are going to engage in policy making experiments, it is important to include resources and requirements for reporting so that policy analysts can study whether the policy is working.”

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