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Public Support for Militarized Policing Ebbs, Fails to Improve Safety

by Ed Lyon

The 1970s television show S.W.A.T., along with its resurrection in the movie and TV show by the same name, portrayed police officers in Special Weapons and Tactics (“SWAT”) units as top cops doing a difficult (yet occasionally required) necessary-but-evil job.

According to the conclusions of a recent study of police militarization by Princeton University assistant professor Jonathan Mummolo, this is not usually the case in the real world.

For this study, Mummolo chose Maryland for his statistical population since, not surprisingly in today’s police state/nation, it was the only state whose legislature had enacted a state law that required all police agencies to record their SWAT mobilizations. This law existed for only a short time, from 2010 to 2014. A seldom-used form of geocoded census, coupled with controlled individual interviews using a varied section of the population, provided the raw data from which the study was conducted.

The militarization of police, or SWAT units, began midway in the last half of the twentieth century by police adapting weapons and tactics usually employed by the military to respond in dire situations beyond the capabilities of ordinary patrol officers. For example, no TV shows prior to ADAM-12 and the original S.W.A.T. series showed militarized police clad in body-armored black assault suits with M-16 automatic rifles and various types of grenades to aid them in their performances of daring-do. This equipment is useless by itself, so such units receive advanced combat training and operate under a military type of special forces command structure.

The pros and cons regarding militarized police units boil down to two competing views. On the one hand, proponents argue that militarized policing protects officers while acting as a deterrent to violent crime. On the other, opponents point to statistical data indicating no evidence that militarized policing has deterred violent crime or affected one way or another the rate of duty-related police deaths or assaults.

Interestingly, over the five-year testing period, about 90 percent of all SWAT deployments were for the purpose of serving warrants. This practice evolved during the war on drugs and is often accompanied with substantial property damages from the use of battering rams, percussion grenades, and in some cases deadly force resulting from innocent citizens mistakenly, but understandingly, believing their homes were being invaded. Five percent of SWAT deployments responded to “barricade” scenes where an armed suspect is refusing to surrender to police. Only about 1.2 percent of SWAT deployments were in response to a “shots fired” report.

The methodologies used in this study showed that militarized policing occurred more often in black communities. This finding dovetails with evidence compiled over decades that show negatively dissimilar treatment toward minority citizens by police.

A generalized difference-in-differences scale comparing SWAT-related and non-SWAT-related instances of violent crime resulting in police officers feloniously killed versus accidentally killed and police officers assaulted with injuries versus assaulted without injuries showed that SWAT unit participation in a police operation “does not reduce crime or improve officer safety” with a 95 percent confidence level.

Respondents in the survey’s reputational analysis were shown a bogus news article about a police chief requesting a budget increase alongside five photos of male cops in traditional uniforms. This was the “low” militarization. A second group was shown the same article with five photos of male cops in SWAT gear. This was the “high” militarization. Respondents’ support for the budget increase was an average of 5 percentage points lower for the “high” group than the “low” group between the MTurk and SIS surveys’ responses. The surveys indicated that black respondents’ confidence in police is 21 percentage points lower than white respondents.

The study’s conclusions indicated no evidence that SWAT unit involvements increase officer safety or lower crime rates through deterrence. Further, routine SWAT deployment elicits negative reactions from citizens, harms law enforcement agency reputations, and lowers people’s willingness to fund police patrols in their neighborhoods.

In the final analysis, the heavy-handed tactics employed by SWAT teams in many cases operate to deprive people of many constitutional rights and civil liberties with nothing on the plus side of the equation to balance out the loss of those rights, liberties, and far-too-often lives. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: “A people who are willing to trade their freedom for safety do not deserve the one and will receive neither.” 

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Sources: forensicmag.com, pnas.org

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