Are police in America militarized?

Pentagon's 1033 program allows transfer of military equipment to police

Protests have swept the nation following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police in May. Some heavy-handed tactics by police armed with riot gear have put the militarization of civilian police back in the spotlight.

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The American Civil Liberties Union warned in 2014 that police were becoming increasingly militarized. 

“American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight,” the ACLU wrote.

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It is mainly the Department of Defense’s 1033 program that has facilitated the militarization of civilian police in small towns and big cities across America.

The ACLU found that from 2006-2014, the Pentagon sent thousands of pieces of military-grade equipment to police departments, including grenade launchers, bayonets, combat knives, bomb detonator robots and more items most people associate with battlefields instead of American streets.

Images of police in armored vehicles with military equipment spread across social media during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

A year after that in 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning the transfer of certain types of surplus military equipment to police, but President Donald Trump reversed that decision in 2017.

Jeff Sessions, who was the U.S. attorney general at the time, contended that military equipment “reduces crime rates, reduces the number of assaults against police officers, and reduces the number of complaints against police officers.”

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But the evidence is mixed on whether the use of military equipment has a deterrent effect on crime. One 2017 study in the American Economic Journal found that “a 10 percent increase in aid reduces total crime by 5.9 crimes per 100,000 population.” Other studies have found similar results.

However, the data that these studies rely on has been criticized by some scholars. For instance, an examination earlier this year by a professor at the University of Michigan, Kenneth Lowande, found that “studies that show crime-reduction benefits are unreliable” due to underlying problems with the data. Lowande also wrote in The Washington Post that he found the “equipment returns ordered in 2015 by the Obama administration had no detectable impact on violent crime or officer safety.”

The ACLU described how militarizing civilian police can lead to hostility between cops and citizens.

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“Militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies,” the ACLU wrote.

Indeed, there is some evidence that the use of military equipment encourages police officers to use greater levels of force against citizens.

A 2017 study in the journal Research and Politics found a “positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.”

This could change soon, though, as a bipartisan group of senators introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act last month that would “limit the transfer of certain surplus military-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.”

Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has been trying to end police militarization for years, said the amendment “confronts the federal militarization of our local police departments by preventing the Defense Department from transferring military weapons, including grenade launchers, bayonets, and weaponized drones, meant for war overseas to local police.”

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