Providing local police with military equipment doesn’t reduce crime after all, study shows

BATON ROUGE, La. — Providing police officers with military equipment doesn’t actually reduce crime at all. That’s the main conclusion from a new study by researchers at Louisiana State University.

On a purely literal level, local police forces and the five branches of the U.S. military perform entirely different functions and services to society. Police exist to protect and serve the citizens of the United States. The military, generally speaking, ensures the safety of the country against mainly foreign threats. Despite this distinction, many local police forces all over America receive military equipment for their officers from the Department of Defense.

Examples of military equipment seen in use by U.S. police officers include advanced and incredibly powerful firearms, armored vehicles, and protective combat gear. Troublingly, study authors also report glaring errors, discrepancies, and missing bits of data in the federal government’s tracking of which police departments receive what equipment.

“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,” says LSU Department of Political Science Assistant Professor Anna Gunderson in a university release.

Was President Trump’s decision to militarize local police justified?

Following the 2014 police brutality protests in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama banned police forces from acquiring heavy duty military equipment like grenade launchers. Then, in 2017 President Trump reversed that decision. His reasoning? The administration said research had concluded militarizing the police leads to less crime in general.

It was around the time of President Trump’s reversal that researchers started their work. Gunderson and her co-authors began examining recent data on SME (surplus military equipment) donations via the 1033 program. That project is “one of the most significant federal programs” currently providing police forces with military gear.

“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 explains.

Accounting for dangerous technology

Upon comparing 2014 data collected by NPR and more recent 2018 statistics, researchers discovered significant discrepancies regarding which police agencies have and use these powerful tools. For instance, many departments who received equipment and weapons in 2014 did not appear in the 2018 report.

In summation, the research team contends the data and conclusions given by the DOD regarding police militarization and it’s impact on crime rates is flat out unreliable. After performing their own calculations, researchers claim there is no evidence more weapons, armor, and vehicles lower crime rates.

“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,” concludes co-author Tom Clark. “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.”

The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour.