Local & State
|Armored, dangerous: Study of militarized cops, confrontations|
|Gardner-Webb University prof provided research|
|Published Wednesday, September 13, 2017 11:00 am|
A new study suggests the militarization of police leads to more civilian casualties.
Research of the federal 1033 program found that equipping police with military-grade weapons correlated to more violent encounters. The 1033 initiative was created in 1996 by the National Defense Authorization Act, which transfers excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.
“It was a topic of particular interest to us, as we had plenty of debates about police militarization in the grad student lounge during the Ferguson, Missouri, riots,” said researcher Casey Delehanty, a Gardner-Webb University political science professor. “The New York Times had released newly-available data on 1033 transfers. As empirical social scientists, you always want to be the first to jump on a new data set and having that happen relating to a really relevant and attention-grabbing topic [like the Michael Brown case] was even better.”
Military-style police deployment has raised tensions nationally as the debate over police brutality against people of color has intensified. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police deployed last year with special gear after the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by an officer. Scott, as well as the CMPD officer who shot him, Brentley Vinson, were black. CMPD has been involved in three fatal shootings thus far in 2017 – none against a black civilian.
In addition to Delehanty, faculty from the University of Cincinnati, Stanford University and Harvard University conducted research for the study.
Researchers tested the effect of weapons transfers on three variables that typically convey police violence: the number of civilian casualties; change in the number of civilian casualties; and the number of dogs killed by police. They found a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.
“I personally don’t impart any sort of animus on the part of police officers; I just think that when someone gets scared in a dangerous situation, they default to the training they believe will keep them safe,” Delahanty said. “Unfortunately, in more militarized departments, that training often involves fatal shootings. Having officers patrol in camouflage, body armor, armored-personnel carriers, etc., only deepens the divide between civilians and police and creates an us-versus-them mentality on both sides. The research indicates that increased levels of militarization will generally only make the problem worse.”
The researchers noted challenges in documenting police-civilian violence, which is not uniformly recorded in a national database.
“In the U.S., there is not a systematic, official count of police shootings for a given year. I can give you an exact count on the number of bicycles stolen last year, but I can’t tell you how many people were actually shot,” Delehanty said. “We needed data covering the years of 1033 transfers we had data for, and that just didn’t exist at the national level. Luckily, we came upon D. Brian Burghart’s ‘Fatal Encounters’ project, which, to our knowledge, was the first that attempted to actually keep track of officer-involved shootings.
“Unfortunately, this information was only fully available for four states at the time, but we went ahead with that smaller-than-ideal sample size. Our future efforts will be using expanded data that has come out since we sent the article off for publication.”
Delehanty believes the U.S. Justice Department’s recent decision to reverse Obama-era restrictions on the kinds of equipment that can be transferred via 1033 will likely result in more casualties.
“I think it will likely lead to more deaths, and it will likely exacerbate the already-strained relationship between police and civilians,” Delahanty said. “I study both policing and counter-insurgency, and we find that better outcomes accrue as positive, non-punitive interactions between civilians and police increase.”
With empirical data on the effects of police militarization on civilian populations, the researchers are looking to investigate related issues, such as public attitudes toward local law enforcement compared to the amount of military-style gear they receive.
“We’ve got a number of things we’re working on,” Delahanty said. “Number one will be expanding the data set as more data comes out about shootings during the time period we’re interested in. … There’s a ton of work still to be done; our work is really more of a first pass at the question than a definitive answer.”
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