Over the last forty years, state and local police budgets have increased at astounding rates, with billions of dollars going toward military-grade equipment for law enforcement. The premise is simple: a better-equipped police force ought to be able to do their job—protecting the public—better, as well as offer more protection for the officers themselves. But two independent studies have punctured those ideas, finding that militarizing police forces does not reduce crime, nor does it increase officer safety.
As ABC News reports, the two peer-reviewed studies, one coming from the University of Michigan, the other from Emory College of Arts & Sciences and Louisiana State University, were both published on Monday in the journal Nature of Human Behaviour. Both studies analyzed the efficacy of the federal Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) 1033 Program, which gave military surplus to police federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for use in drug enforcement. The argument, according to law and policymakers, was that providing armored vehicles and high-powered rifles would better support counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations and “enhance public safety,” a spokesperson for the DLA told ABC News.
However, the Michigan study found much of the equipment given to these departments remained unused, malfunctioned, or were handed down to other agencies and could no longer be accounted for. But more importantly, when police departments received this military equipment, there were no discernible differences in crime rates.
Kenneth Lowande, an assistant political science professor at the University of Michigan and author of the study, “Police Demilitarization and Violent Crime,” told ABC News, “When you look at those types of police departments’ crime rates over time, you don’t see any differences.”
This is most apparent when looking at the Obama years, when former President Barack Obama’s administration rolled back the 1033 program, which recalled certain items, such as track armored vehicles and grenade launchers, from state and local police departments.
“If this equipment was playing a big role in reducing crime in those areas, you would have expected to see crime go up and it just didn’t,” Lowande said.
The Emory College and LSU study came to a similar conclusion, finding that the lax record-keeping made it hard to evaluate how much the high-grade equipment was actually being utilized.
“Our findings suggest this program, which is roughly 30 years old, isn’t actually contributing to public safety,” Tom Clark, a professor of political science at Emory and co-author of the study, told ABC News.
The studies arrive at the end of a year defined in part by police protests when calls to “defund the police” became more common and activists—and were roundly rejected among many lawmakers.
According to the Washington D.C.-based think tank, Urban Institute, state and local government spending on policing increased nearly threefold in the last 40 years, from $42 billion in 1977 to $115 billion in 2017 (using inflation-adjusted dollars). Racial justice activists and progressive policymakers say this money can be better spent on education, housing and public health—particularly in the middle of a pandemic that has spurred massive job losses.
A militarized police force can also make members of marginalized communities feel more unsafe and escalate tense situations—as was evidenced during this year’s uprisings. In Philadelphia, New Orleans and Cincinnati, armored vehicles were deployed by local police departments to repress Black Lives Matter protests, reports NBC News. The news outlet tracked 29 incidents in which the tanks were used, finding that at least 17 of the military-style vehicles were obtained through the 1033 program.