Giving military equipment to the police in the USA actually reduces crime, but not because of more weapons.
A debate has been raging about the militarisation of the police in the USA in the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Armoured vehicles and policemen in military clothing with military weapons were deployed to deal with the big protests and crowds, and the television images from this little suburb were at times reminiscent of images from war zones.
Even though the arrangement whereby surplus military materiel is transferred to the civil police has been in place since 1990, what effect this has had on crime has been a relatively open question – until now.
Using newly released data from the U.S. Department of Defense, Evelina Gavrilova-Zoutman, assistant professor at the Department of Business and Management Science at NHH, and Vincenzo Bove of the University of Warwick have now been able to investigate this effect. The data cover transfers to 8,000 police districts during the period 2006 to 2012.
‘We see that transfers of equipment under the category "Other" have the greatest effect in terms of reducing crime. This category comprises equipment that probably makes it easier for the police to do their job, such as computers and software, power cables, first aid equipment, tools and maintenance material,’ says Gavrilova-Zoutman.
The researchers find a decrease in what they call crime that is ‘susceptible to influence’, where a visible police presence as a result of the transfers can have a deterrent effect. The number of robberies, muggings, thefts and car thefts is falling as a result of the transferred equipment, while the number of murders is unchanged.
In total, the average crime rate fell by 0.24 per cent as a result of the transfers during the period observed. An increase of 10 per cent in military equipment leads to a reduction of 5.9 criminal offences per 100,000 inhabitants, they find.
‘The total effect is not so great, but it is very cost-efficient. A 10 per cent increase in equipment costs around USD 5,800 per county per year. By comparison, the reduction in crime results in a gain of USD 112,000 in cost savings. That means that you save 20 dollars in costs for every dollar you spend,’ Gavrilova-Zoutman says.
Weapons have no effect
The transferred equipment is divided into the categories ‘weapons’, ‘equipment’, 'vehicles’ and ‘other’. If the transfers in the ‘other’ category are increased by 10 per cent, this leads to seven fewer criminal offences per year on average. For the categories ‘equipment’ and ‘vehicles’, the effect is similar to the overall effect of around 5.9 fewer offences for every 10 per cent increase in transfers.
The ‘weapons’ category, which includes firearms, ammunition and explosives, has no overall significant effect on crime.
The categories consist of very many different types of equipment, however, which can have several different effects. For instance, the vehicle category contains everything from the much discussed mine-resistant armour protected vehicles (MRAP) to more ordinary vehicles, tyres and other equipment. The equipment category comprises clothing, communications equipment, electronics, fire-fighting equipment and training equipment.
The weapons category also includes six guided missiles, i.e. explosive missiles that can be steered during flight, with an average cost of around NOK 467,000 per unit. The effect of these missiles, which have been transferred to the US police during the period, has not been reported separately.
The unrest in Ferguson, which sparked the increased interest in this issue, was triggered by a policeman shooting and killing an unarmed black youth called Michael Brown in 2014. Big protests followed in the wake of the killing, and the acquittal of the policeman who shot him. They protested against what many people saw as a lack of accountability on the part of the police and systematic discrimination of the black population.
In order to deal with the widespread protests that followed, the police made use of equipment they had obtained from the US Armed Forces’ stores of surplus equipment, such as automatic guns and armoured vehicles.
Some people saw the use of force as excessive, and that mixing civilian and military equipment was unfortunate.
Towards the end of 2014, President Obama intervened and prohibited the transfer of the most heavy-duty military equipment, such as grenade launchers and crawler trucks. He also demanded that armoured vehicles, firearms and similar only be used by personnel who had been given the required training.
It must be emphasised, however, that the data are not optimal in this area, because, until recently, it has been voluntary for the police in the USA to report statistics for this. We therefore cannot know how much data we lack.
The issue has divided opinion in the USA, but, according to Gavrilova, little research has so far been done on the effects the military materiel has had on the crime it was intended to combat.
Their study now finds that the transfers contribute to reducing crime, but that it is equipment in the non-lethal category that has the biggest effect.
One particularly relevant question given the public debate about militarisation of the police is what effect the transfers have had on the number of killings committed by police officers.
‘We find no effect on the number of police killings as a result of the transfers of military equipment to the police,’ Gavrilova-Zoutman says.
‘It must be emphasised, however, that the data are not optimal in this area, because, until recently, it has been voluntary for the police in the USA to report statistics for this. We therefore cannot know how much data we lack,' she adds.
A change has taken place in this connection since the protests started. Since the UK newspaper The Guardian started registering killings committed by the police under the heading The Counted, the US authorities have followed up with better reporting.
‘The Guardian’s project inspired the US Congress to demand much more exact reporting of data by the police. In four to five years, once we have enough data, we will thus be able to say more about police killings and abuse of power,’ Gavrilova tells us.
Becoming more productive
The researchers find that the military materiel does not have any effect on the number of arrests or the number of injuries to police officers. That leads them to believe that it is an increased deterrent effect that is pushing down the crime rates, through what they call increased police effort.
The Guardian’s project inspired the US Congress to demand much more exact reporting of data by the police. In four to five years, once we have enough data, we will thus be able to say more about police killings and abuse of Power.
‘The police are often underfunded. These transfers can put them in a better position to do their job by enabling them to fix equipment that breaks down and work more quickly as a result of new computers and software. As otherwise in working life, you give workers more capital, here in the form of various equipment, so that they can work more efficiently,’ Gavrilova says.
At the same time, they find that the transfers can lead to a reduction in the headcount in the police districts. This can be interpreted to mean that the police need fewer employees when they can work more efficiently, or to put it in more economic terms, that they replace some labour with capital and become more productive.
The military equipment enables the police to appear more powerful in the eyes of the civilian population, which can have a deterrent effect on potential criminals. Gavrilova believes that this is supported by the fact that it is crime that is susceptible to influence that is decreasing, such as robberies and thefts, while the number of murders is not affected. The deterrent effect is not unproblematic, however.
‘The case of Ferguson shows that it is not only criminals you scare, but also the inhabitants you are supposed to protect. This can increase the distance between the police and the population, which can have a negative effect on trust. If local communities do not trust the police, they will report fewer crimes, and will be reluctant to call out the police to enforce the law. That, in turn, will create a power vacuum that criminal groups could try to fill and establish their own laws. A well-functioning society is dependent on good relations with the police,’ she says.