A new look at existing data by LSU researchers refutes the Trump administration's claims.
- The United States Department of Defense gifts surplus military equipment and clothing to local police departments.
- The militarization of police coincides with a significant loss of trust in law enforcement from the American public.
- Militarized police departments are more likely to interact violently with their communities.
Watching coverage of protests in American streets, many of us have been shocked to witness what modern policing often looks like. Even putting aside the reason for many of these demonstrations in the first place—allegations of police brutality—what we see onscreen marching towards protestors is chilling. We witness police garbed in helmets, flak jackets, tactical dress, and carrying assault rifles, backed by weaponry designed for the battlefield, not the nation's thoroughfares.
The primary source of this equipment and clothing is the Federal government's 1033 program, which has been described as "Uncle Sam's Goodwill Store." This surplus military equipment (SME)—or "reutilized" gear as the Department of Defense (DOD) calls it—is granted, for free, to local law enforcement agencies, or "LEAs." WIRED estimates the Pentagon has gifted to local police some $7.3 billion worth of military equipment and clothing.
Concerned about the manner in which this militarization has affected policing, and following 2014's Ferguson protests, President Obama curtailed the program. The Trump administration removed these limits in 2017, claiming research had proved militarization reduces crime.
A new study from Louisiana State University (LSU) revisits that research, finding it incomplete and inconsistent. The researchers, led by LSU political scientist Anna Gunderson, collected their own more comprehensive and accurate data and concluded that militarizing local police does not actually reduce crime.
A wide lack of support
Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
It's no wonder that more than half of the American public no longer trusts the police. It's hard not to get the impression that for many police departments, the mission has changed from one of support for its communities to an attempt to intimidate and dominate its members.
Studies back this up. Police whose departments use military equipment are more often violent with community members and are more likely to kill them. Neither is this a small problem at the margins of policing: Over 1,000 people are killed by police annually.
In spite of the Trump administration's faith in the soundness of the 1033 program, others from across the political spectrum disagree. On the right, the Charles Koch Foundation asserts, "This erosion of public confidence in law enforcement and low support for militarization impedes law enforcement's ability to effectively secure public safety." From the left, the American Civil Liberties Union says, "We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers."
Credit: JeremyAdobe Stock
Gunderson explains to LSU Media Center that, "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."
The research cited by the Trump administration was a study done by the American Economic Association based on SME data collected through a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request. Having a look at that data themselves, along with other FOIA 2014 data released by National Public Radio and newer data from 2018, the LSU researchers found that things didn't quite line up. Where FOIA suggests certain counties received SME, NPR's data showed no such transfer. Similarly, NPR reported departments receiving items such as weapons, grants that were not reflected in the 2018 data as expected.
"When we looked at the data and ran the replications, nothing looked like the results being cited by the Trump Administration," Gunderson recalls. "We spent a year trying to diagnose the problem."
The LSU researchers' conclusion was the the previously released SME data from the DOD was too inconsistent to produce reliable insights. They conducted their own analysis, aligning newer data with country-level LEA data, to derive a cohesive, accurate picture that allowed them to more definitively assess who got SME transfers and who didn't, and what effect it had on local crime statistics.
They found no indication that SME transfers led to a reduction in crime. The study concludes, "we find no evidence that federal distributions of SME to local LEAs across the United States reduce crime rates, neither violent nor nonviolent crime rates, in the jurisdictions that receive it."
"This is a cautionary tale about the importance of oversight. The most important thing for policymakers 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."
What's more says, the report, "because of serious data problems and debatable methodological choices in prior studies, the empirical foundations on which social scientists, along with policymakers and the public, stand when making causal claims about the effects of the transfers of SME may be no firmer than quicksand."
The videos raise serious legal and moral questions about police crowd-control tactics.
- The publicly accessible Google Sheet lists more than 1,000 incidents of alleged police misconduct.
- Each entry is organized by city, and most contain a link to a video.
- From tear gas to rubber bullets, the videos highlight the extensive powers police are given in certain situations.
Activists have been compiling videos of violent clashes between protestors and police in the two weeks since George Floyd was killed by officer Derek Chauvin. Hundreds of these videos appear on a Google spreadsheet that currently lists more than 1,000 incidents of alleged police misconduct. Many of the scenes are surreal.
In Minneapolis, a video shows police marching down a mostly empty residential street and screaming "get inside!" to a handful of residents standing on a porch. When the group doesn't go inside, police shoot them with pepper bullets.
In San Diego, police said they witnessed a woman swing a sign at an officer on a motorcycle. It's unclear whether she did. But what a video does show is several cops arresting a woman at gunpoint, putting her inside an unmarked van, and telling her concerned friends: "If you follow us, you will get shot."
In Austin, 16-year-old Edwin Ayala attended a protest. He stood alone on a grassy hill, about a dozen yards away from police and other protestors. As Ayala stood still, an officer on the street raised his gun and shot a bean-bag bullet at the boy's head. Ayala collapsed instantly and was hospitalized.
Hi. You're probably seeing this pinned tweet because cops are rioting nationwide and I'm trying to keep track I'm… https://t.co/Smsc5G1NmQ— T. Greg Doucette (@T. Greg Doucette)1591241812.0
The project is led by T. Greg Doucette, a criminal defense lawyer in North Carolina who produces the podcast Fsck 'Em All, which covers police conduct. In late May, he started posting videos of clashes between protestors and police to social media. Soon, people began sending him videos to post.
"I think 'avalanche' is probably an understatement," Doucette told TIME. "I've got close to 2,000 messages that I haven't even been able to open yet."
Doucette and his colleagues try to verify each video, such as by checking whether the media has covered an incident, or highlighting when videos show an incident from an additional vantage point. Most entries also contain commentary, such as: "police shoot out a dog walker's eye for sport."
A Bronze Star recipient protested in Columbus and was pepper sprayed, tear gassed, run into by a bicycle cop and in… https://t.co/4QYOnXZhgp— Tyler Buchanan (@Tyler Buchanan)1591540077.0
One of the people helping with the project is Jason Miller, a mathematician in California. Miller told TIME:
"[As] I've grown up and matured, I've moved out of Minneapolis and I've reflected on my relationship with race. I've seen how the culture in Minneapolis was not a healthy culture. [...] I wanted this information to be freely distributed, and free for people to see."
To be sure, it's not always clear what's happening in these videos, or what provoked a clash. What's more, it's likely that cops technically aren't breaking any laws in some of these incidents. After all, most police in the U.S. are given the power to use pepper spray, tear gas, batons, and non-lethal bullets against civilians who are "unlawfully" assembled.
The Austin Police Department's handbook, for example, says that officers can use modified 12-gauge shotguns to shoot civilians with bean-bags if they need to "de-escalate a potentially deadly situation." (You can watch an officer shooting Edwin Ayala in the head and decide for yourself whether that officer faced a "potentially deadly situation.")
Stephanie Keith / Getty
It's also worth mentioning that hundreds of police officers have been injured during protests and riots in recent weeks. In St. Louis, four officers were shot and one former police captain was killed. In Oakland, two Federal Protective Service officers were shot during a protest; one was critically injured, the other died. And in New York City, nearly 300 officers have been injured so far, according to the NYPD. (It's unclear how extensive those injuries are.)
Still, no police handbook calls for officers to pursue extralegal revenge on civilian crowds. And it seems safe to say that no public official would argue that police — no matter the circumstance — should be permitted to deliberately cover up their body cameras, pepper-spray protestors from behind as they're walking away, or chase down and beat reporters for documenting the protests.
"What we're taught in school is that all power comes from the people; the people elect their representatives, the representatives hire the bureaucrats, the bureaucrats hire the cops" Doucette told TIME. "They're supposed to be at the bottom of the rungs of power, and instead we've inverted that upside down— where the police are openly declaring war on their own citizens, and the politicians are simply sitting there, diddling their phones, not doing anything."
Handing out tickets might be distracting police departments from working on more serious crimes.
- Recent research uncovered that the more a city's police department collects fines and fees, the less effective they are at solving crimes.
- In cities where violent crimes are not solved, trust in the police goes down. As a result, citizens report fewer crimes to the police, causing a vicious cycle.
- To address this, cities need to focus less on fining those who break minor laws and focus more on violent/property crimes.
For those of you who've traveled through the U.S. on a road trip before, this is probably a familiar experience. The miles are slipping by, and you're zooming along at a comfortable 70 miles per hour. A speed-limit sign zips by: 35 miles per hour. Suddenly, a Crown Victoria with blue and red flashing lights and a siren pulls out of a side street concealed by the trees. Minutes later, you've earned yourself a $90 ticket and some points on your car insurance.
Sure, regulating speed is important, but some cities in America seem hell-bent on applying the squeeze. It might ruin your day, but for the city, it's a great way to drum up some extra revenue. But, it turns out that police departments that focus on collecting fines and fees for the city also do a worse job at solving crimes.
Keeping their eyes on the money
The revenue from fines and fees like parking tickets are used to bump up the city's budget.
Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel
A recent study published in Urban Affairs Review took a look at the correlation between how much money cities collected through police departments and how well those police departments solved crimes. About 80% of U.S. cities get some portion of their revenue from the fines and fees levied by police departments. The worst 6% of these cities relied on fines and fees for as much as 10% of their revenue. If you were hoping to figure out which cities to avoid on your next road trip, the study regrettably did not name them.
The researchers found a startingly correlation: for every 1% of a city's budget that was derived from police fees and fines, 6.1% fewer violent crimes and 8.3% fewer property crimes were solved.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at three different data sets.
- The Census of Governments, which collects data on the budget compositions of the roughly 90,000 local governments in the U.S., including how much of their budget comes from fines and fees
- The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data, which collects statistics on violent crimes (like murder) and property crimes (like car theft or burglary) as well as how many of those crimes have been solved
- The Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, which contains data on the size of police forces, their budget, the various roles of a city's police officers, and other statistics on local law enforcement
Looking through these data sets and examining the relationships within, the researchers came up with a few different explanations for why collecting more fines lowered crime clearance rates.
Why levying fines lowers efficacy
Part of the reason why more fines issued means fewer crimes solved is that fining people takes up a significant chunk of a police officer's time.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images
First, aggressively enforcing laws that accrue fines and fees (like setting up speed traps) can use up the time officers would otherwise use to solve crimes. Importantly, smaller cities—those with less than 28,010 citizens—had the strongest relationship between higher revenue collection and lower crime-solving rates.
This is because larger cities generally have specialized police forces, where some officers specifically enforce laws that generate city revenue and other officers pursue violent crime or property crime. Smaller cities don't have this luxury. Generally, their police officers do every kind of job a police officer might do. So, when the city puts a greater emphasis on collecting revenue, the officers have less time to do their work.
The study also offered another explanation. Research shows that the more negative interactions there are with police officers, the less a population trusts those officers. Traffic stops are by far the most common type of interaction between the general public and the police. Not only are these inherently unpleasant interactions between the police and a citizen, but the increased rate of traffic stops also increases the likelihood that something will go wrong.
With less trust between a population and its police, 911 is called less frequently, making it more difficult to solve crimes. What's more, this leads to a vicious cycle—research has also shown that a higher rate of unsolved violent crimes leads to less trust in the police.
Who’s getting squeezed?
The study found that African-American and poor communities tended to be fined the most.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Since we're talking about broken police practices in America, it'll come as no surprise that rich, white folk aren't the ones getting screwed. The study noted that "cities with a higher number of African-Americans, less-educated residents, lower tax revenues, and lower […] representation of minorities [in local government] tend to collect a greater share of revenues from fines and fees." Every 10% increase in the population of African-Americans in a city was also associated with a 1.1% lower rate of crime clearance. So, the more African-Americans in a city, the more likely police are to extract fines and fees from its residents and the less likely they are to work on solving crimes. This explanation also fits well with the well-studied fact that many African-American communities in U.S. cities have very little trust in the police.
It's important to note that this study didn't establish causality. Just because a police department with higher rates of fine and fee collection has lower rates of crime clearance doesn't mean the first causes the second; they're just related figures. For instance, the authors noted that higher crime rates might discourage people from moving to the city, driving down the property values. Since a city gets most of its revenue from property taxes, the city might have no choice but to aggressively fine its residents.
Ultimately, however, the effect is the same: relatively law-abiding citizens get taxed for breaking minor laws, while violent criminals and thieves get away with their crimes. If we want to fix crime in America and for our cities to prosper, police departments and city governments need to focus less on squeezing their residents for every penny and more on solving crimes that truly damage our cities.
Former tennis pro James Blake makes a case for transparency in police departments.
What is the "blue wall of silence"? It's a term for when the police department says either nothing wrong or nothing at all about the discrepancies of a fellow police officer. If taken to extreme lengths, this silence allows police officers the ability to do pretty much do whatever they want providing that there isn't evidence to the contrary. In tennis professional James Blake's case, a few years ago, just before a U.S. Open media day, he was tackled outside of a Manhattan hotel by a police officer in a case of alleged mistaken identity. Four other police officers stood by the arresting officer and maintained that Blake had been in custody no more than a couple of minutes. They hadn't counted on security footage from the hotel that proved that James Blake had been in custody for nearly 15 minutes—even after showing them evidence of his identity with his U.S. Open credentials. With so many cases of police brutality in the news, it's easy to see why James' case is relevant. Should police stand up for themselves or the truth? James Blake is the author of Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.
Are you detective material? This visual intelligence test will make you think twice about accuracy and just how much details matter.
Amy Herman’s visual intelligence tests and exercises are best done with a friend, because every time they unveil something about perspective that you didn’t expect. Herman created and teaches a course called The Art of Perception to doctors, intelligence analysts and the NYPD, and while her lessons are entertaining for individuals looking to have their minds blown, they are immensely relevant for businesses and even more so for criminal investigations.
Here she uses one of Rene Magritte’s artworks to demonstrate the dangers of assumptions – both in observations, but also in communicating those observations. Her example from a real criminal investigation in Texas will spark an awareness of the different ways people see identical objects and our varying understandings of exactly the same words. Fine-tuning our visual intelligence makes us more careful, considered, and accurate – something so important when lives and money are at stake.
Amy Herman is the author of Visual Intelligence:Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.