A study has been released confirming what many have suspected: militarization of law enforcement doesn’t make communities safer, has zero effect on officer safety, and is rarely deployed as advertised when agencies make pitches for the acquisition of military gear.
The most frequent recipient of military tools and training are SWAT teams. Professor Jonathan Mummolo’s research — published by the National Academy of Sciences — gained unprecedented access to SWAT deployment numbers, thanks to a public records request and a Maryland state law requiring documentation of every SWAT raid performed. (That law was allowed to expire by legislators who apparently felt it provided too much transparency and accountability.)
With these numbers, Mummolo was able to compare SWAT deployments to other stats, as well as see just how often SWAT teams were deployed to handle dangerous situations like robberies, shootings, hostage-taking, etc. What he discovered was, sadly, unsurprising. Police officials talk about the necessity of SWAT teams and military gear using references to barricaded suspects, terrorist attacks, active shooters…. pretty much anything but what they actually use them for. From the paper [PDF]:
[R]oughly 90% of SWAT deployments in that state over 5 fiscal years were conducted to serve search warrants. Previous work has shown that the use of SWAT teams to serve warrants, a practice which escalated as a result of the war on drugs, is an extremely disruptive event in the lives of citizens and often involves percussive grenades, battering rams, substantial property damage, and in rare cases deadly altercations stemming from citizens’ mistaken belief that they are experiencing a home invasion. […] less than 5% of deployments involved a “barricade” scenario, which typically involves an armed suspect refusing to surrender to police. Violence to people and animals is rare, and gun shots are fired 1.2% of the time—roughly 100 deployments during this period. While the data suggest that indiscriminate violence is less common than some anecdotal reports suggest, they also show that the vast majority of SWAT deployments occur in connection with non-emergency scenarios, predominately to serve search warrants.
Similarly unsurprising is data showing SWAT teams are deployed far more often in areas with a higher concentration of African American residents. Mummolo’s research shows a 10% increase in African American population resulted in a 10.5% increase in SWAT deployments.
All the gear obtained by police agencies to make officers safer doesn’t seem to have an effect on officer safety. The data shows negligible effects on officer injuries or deaths. Despite being touted as essential tools to combat a supposed increase in criminal firepower, SWAT teams and their military gear spend more time serving warrants than facing dangerous situations. Maryland SWAT stats — compared against other data reported by law enforcement agencies — results in this conclusion:
[T]here is no evidence that acquiring a SWAT team lowers crime or promotes officer safety.
Surveys conducted by Mummolo show SWAT teams — and police militarization in general — have a negative effect on public perception. SWAT teams make the places they’re frequently deployed seem less safe, even if crime stats don’t back that up. Dressing up in military gear increases distrust of the law enforcement agency — something especially pronounced in African American respondents.
Mummolo’s conclusion, based on stats supplied by law enforcement agencies, is devastating. And it’s likely to be ignored by every law enforcement agency in Maryland.
Given the concentration of deployments in communities of color, where trust in law enforcement and government at large is already depressed, the routine use of militarized police tactics by local agencies threatens to increase the historic tensions between marginalized groups and the state with no detectable public safety benefit. While SWAT teams arguably remain a necessary tool for violent emergency situations, restricting their use to those rare events may improve perceptions of police with little or no safety loss.
SWAT teams arose out of a need for elite response units to send to especially dangerous situations. It’s quickly devolved into nothing more than a sideshow for warrant service — an excuse to treat citizens like enemy combatants while needlessly escalating situations until they can justify the absurdly overblown tactics and weaponry being deployed.
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