Some who’ve criticized such “militarized” policing have focused on the federal 1033 Program, which transfers excess military equipment to police and sheriffs. But that’s just one program subsidizing the militaristic appearance of policing. Let’s look at the range of funding sources for these materials — and at how little we know about where these materials come from and where they go.
The 1033 Military Surplus Program
Many police and sheriffs possess gear and equipment from or associated with the U.S. armed forces. Some comes from the federal 1033 Program, which distributes excess military goods as federal grants-in-aid to police, sheriffs and other agencies.
Most of these goods are mundane items such as coffee makers, electrical wire and cargo containers. In other cases, police have acquired items normally associated with combat such as rifles, helicopters and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. As a result, officers may use these to face demonstrators.
Based on our review of 1033 Program data from March 2020, we calculate that police departments in 49 percent of the approximately 1,000 places with protests as of June 8 have materiel from the 1033 Program. Of these, 160 police departments and a few county sheriffs received armored trucks, including MRAP vehicles, arguably the most prominent symbol of police militarization.
Other federal programs help militarize U.S. policing
If Congress scaled back the 1033 Program, as the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 proposes, other programs subsidizing the purchase of new materiel for “homeland security,” “counterdrug” and “emergency response” activities would continue. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Strategy Initiative and the Defense Department’s 1122 Program grant police and sheriff’s departments money to purchase crowd-control items such as cuffs, batons, helmets, gas masks and other such equipment or allow them to use their own money to buy it at discounted federal prices.
Since 2016, following an investigation of the 1033 Program triggered by policing during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., the federal government reports what surplus military equipment (and its estimated value) it distributes to counties, cities and towns. However, it has not done the same for programs enabling police and sheriffs to buy new militarylike equipment outright. Nor is there federal reporting of how much the other programs subsidize the militaristic appearance and equipment of local police and sheriffs.
Some departments buy military equipment with local funding
Many police and sheriff’s departments use municipal and county taxes, fines and forfeiture to buy new militarylike equipment. They think they need it to protect their officers from being outgunned, overpowered or disregarded in any situation, and to enhance public rescue capacities.
We can’t know for sure whether city and county coffers, not the federal government, fund most militaristic equipment police and sheriffs display. Local public safety budgets and reports rarely mention, if at all, how police departments and sheriff’s offices obtain such equipment. That makes it very difficult for policymakers and taxpayers to hold informed and open debates about whether and what military-style equipment should be used for local public safety.
Private philanthropy contributes, too
Various police foundations and other such institutions like the Law Enforcement Charitable Foundation grant funding so that police and sheriffs can purchase body armor, protective vehicles and surveillance equipment. No entity tracks such funding, which means there’s no record of how much is distributed, which departments receive it or what equipment they purchase.
Do military supplies hurt or help public safety?
The Trump administration, the National Sheriff’s Association and others oppose reforming the 1033 Program and dismiss calls to “demilitarize the police.” Those who defend the 1033 Program and other such subsidies for military-style police equipment sometimes point to a study by economists Vincenzo Bove and Evelina Gavrilova suggesting that when police acquire more excess military goods, crime drops (or moves elsewhere), officers and deputies experience less violence from the public against them and the public files fewer complaints against police and sheriffs.
Our research suggests that those findings are inaccurate. We analyzed refined public data from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). Earlier studies used aggregated DLA data that provided county-level information about surplus military equipment. Newer DLA data provide policing agency-level information, allowing for better studies of the program’s operation at the lower geographies of policing such as cities.
Combining the newer data with statistical methods similar to those the economists used, we found that receiving 1033 Program goods has no effect on crime or other measures of public safety. That’s consistent with what Ayse Eldes and Kenneth Lowande reported here at TMC that they had found in their research.
Further, political scientist Edward Lawson Jr. found that as public safety departments acquire more 1033 Program equipment, more local residents are likely to die in encounters with police and sheriffs. Additionally, political scientist Jonathan Mummolo’s research used five years of public records from every SWAT unit deployment in Maryland and found that local SWAT units, the most armored and armed of all police and sheriffs, neither cut violent crime nor increased officer safety.
What’s needed for a full public debate about police equipment
From the mayor of San Francisco to the U.S. House of Representatives, some policymakers are trying to reduce police possession and use of military and militarylike equipment. That’s consistent with public opinion: Generally, the U.S. public thinks the police don’t need military-grade materiel for law enforcement.
The public responds poorly to police outfitted in military gear. As Mummolo found using survey experiments, a militaristic appearance weakens public support for police presence and funding. That suggests that police looking like combat soldiers may buttress “defund the police” campaigns.
To regulate or limit police possessing surplus military or new military-looking equipment, or even to have a full debate, it would be useful to have more government transparency about how municipal police and county sheriffs procure such supplies, and more understanding of the local and civic consequences of possession.
Michael Leo Owens (@milo_phd) is an associate professor of political science and co-director of the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University.
Tom Clark (@tom_s_clark) is a professor of political science and co-director of the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University.
Adam Glynn is an associate professor of political science and co-director of the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University.