Lying with Statistics: Militarized Policed Edition

"Law Enforcement Agencies That Acquire Military Gear Are More Likely To Kill People"

This one comes courtesy of TechDirt. The original article is at the link but we are going to discuss it line by line here because it shows a surprising narrowmindedness that I find derelict. This is, of course, their opinion on statistics versus mine. But when we agree on a baseline fundamental principle, that the over-militarization of police leads to poor policing and sets worrisome trends, but use poor logic you undermine the principle.

Let us begin.

[from the what-a-surprise dept]

Oooh, snarky. Strong beginning, it let’s all of us know that the author has preconceived notions on this topic. There’s nothing wrong with a notion, but so many of them are based on faulty, ill thought out, and underwhelming lack of understanding that this raises my hackles. Hackles thoroughly raised. Now, the author could go on to wow me with a well reasoned narrative that, even while giving voice to their opinion, does great credit to their argument.

This will not be one of those times.

Correlation is not causation, but if you gear yourself up like you’re going to war, chances are you’re going to treat the people you’re supposed to serve as enemy combatants.

There are oh so many assumptions made in this opening paragraph. To start with, the fact that every department who takes anything from 1033 is kitting up like a SEAL Raider Marine Airborne Space Force Ranger. Secondly, that if a piece of equipment is used by the military it is automatically militarized so militaristically that even the socket wrenches we use in DoD maintenance are war socket wrenches!

*tactical ratcheting intensifies*

This is what police departments have been doing for years. The federal government’s 1033 program allows local PDs to help themselves to military surplus, which includes armored vehicles, armored vests, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. Cops have stopped looking like cops and started looking like combat units. The end result appears to be deadlier police forces more interested in shock, awe, and escalation than defusing tense situations.

Man, you haven’t seen shock and awe if you think a cop in a plate carrier carrying a patrol rifle is shock and awe. Combined heavy arms is something else.

I’m also against cops gearing up in multi-cam officially, in all honesty, even tactical teams (with the arguable exception of police snipers who need to generate a hide for the environment).

Making our cops stop looking like cops is not a good thing in my opinion and multi-cam is drastically overused. Blue for PD’s and greens for Sheriff Departments have always been strong choices, in my opinion. But the US Army is using a lot of OCP/Multicam so it is certainly available in the government procurement circles. It also looks pretty good, no lie detected there, it just doesn’t look like ‘The Police’ and when part of your job as cops is to look like cops.. You get the picture.

I take severe issue with the broad brush attack on departments that take 1033 assistance, as if every single one that took over the established threshold this article cites is running around in full kit and every ascribed negative outcome is a direct result of them running around in full kit.

We’ll get to this in a moment.

A study of 1033 program use in Georgia by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows the more law enforcement gets from the military, the more often it uses deadly force.

{A new AJC analysis of a decade of records across 651 Georgia police departments and sheriff’s offices found departments that took more than $1,000 in 1033 money, on average, fatally shot about four times as many people as those that didn’t. The newspaper’s analysis used the military’s database and paired it with a database of fatal police shootings from across the state, controlling for statistical variables like community income, rural-urban differences, racial makeup, and violent crime rates.

The results paint a troubling picture: The more equipment a department receives, the more people are shot and killed, even after accounting for violent crime, race, income, drug use and population.}

There are a number of problems with this assertive causation (which remember, does not equal correlation except they certainly want you to say that it does anyway for this argument)

First $1,000 in equipment is nothing. That is one officers worth of safety gear, maybe. I don’t know what the 1033 savings exchange rate is or however they account for 1033 equipment but everyone reading this right now knows that $1,000 buys you a decent rifle at retail, so with discounts for used equipment and all that jazz it might get you… three? For a small department of twelve, they now have 1:4 coverage so maybe every vehicle has one. The patrol rifle is not militarizing the police. An armored vehicle rolling to pick up bench warrants or part of a ‘show of force’ presence patrol arguably is. But an officer having a rifle when otherwise they wouldn’t is not.

I want cops making their presence known as community members. I want them stopping at the stores, cookouts, sporting events, entertainment venues, and generally being participants in the community. And they do! Social Media is filled with examples of it. But these items are not accounted for if the department took 1033 equipment, they are now ‘militarized’.

Here’s a quick aside: both criminals and law enforcement officers are human beings who make individual choices. Which is why when a statistic like this is brought out, it feels like such a hollow, shallow, partisan, and ignorant argument. It boils a complex series of detailed choices between multiple human beings down to a raw number and then gives it a good or bad sticker. In this case, bad.

I know officers in departments who have been helped by 1033 equipment. Some of them are happy they got M16A1’s at the time. Yes, A1’s… rifles that ceased production in 1982. The officers were happy because the alternative to A1’s… was nothing. They couldn’t afford new patrol rifles with some of the basic modern bells and whistles, and they could not either afford or it was against policy to use a personal carbine with approved equipment. Even when those are easily judged against national standards for quality and suitability.

When you don’t have budget, you do the best you can. But equipment isn’t the only place budget strapped departments suffer, it is in manpower too. Officer quantity and quality suffer without money. And in today’s climate I do not envy a single person currently serving as sworn law enforcement.. talk about a job where everyone to include the people who hired you, trained you, and gave you the equipment (1033 or otherwise) might not have your back on a decision you had to make in one of the most stressful moments of your life if it becomes politically expedient to sacrifice you.

Stupid policies come from stupid people trying to do good things in stupid ways. Sometimes stupid policies come from corruption, but usually its the ‘good intentions’ of the stupid that jumps on this road to hell. They come from people who do not understand, and often make no attempt to, because they have preconceived notions of what the ‘right’ way should be.

Only 7% of Georgia’s law enforcement agencies obtained military gear through this program. But that 7% was responsible for 17% of the state’s killings by law enforcement officers.

There is a reason they are using percentages here and not numbers. We will get to it. Keep in mind also that it is 7% of Departments and not 7% officers. A depart with 12 officers and a department with 200 officers are therefore both .15% of total departments.

As the AJC points out, this correlation is only a correlation. It doesn’t prove the 1033 program is responsible for increased deadly force deployment...

But you are going to say so/imply so anyway.

It only suggests a relationship between obtained military gear and increased killings. Getting more gear does not increase the number of killings by cops, but the fact remains agencies that have used the program are involved in more killings than agencies that haven’t.

Now, we must bring up what a LEO involved shooting is. It is an abnormality in overall behavior. So what we are doing by picking apart the fatal shootings crossed with 1033 gear is assigning blame for what is a behavioral abnormality when considering law enforcement interaction in general. We also have no data on where a positive resolution would have been made more challenging or potentially impossible without 1033 gear. Where did 1033 save lives or generate positive outcomes and interactions? No idea.

Let’s take a look at some additional data.

From 2009-2012, per the linked study by NCBI – National Library of Medicine – National Institute of Health, there were 812 fatal use of force incidents. You can go into the study, it is an informative read that does well to illustrate the complexity surrounding a fatal shooting by Law Enforcement.

Unlike say.. pointing out that 17% of fatal shootings in a single state came from 7% of ‘departments’ and they got military equipment so clearly that is the culprit you should infer.

What about the 18% of shootings that are suicide by cop? (link) What about the 14% involving intimate partner violence. Or how about that 82.6% shot who were armed? Or about the only 5.4% of an already rare event where no evidence of an immediate threat was found.

Is that particular number too high? Certainly, we want no threat incidents at zero. But we also want a world where shooting at something is purely recreational and threatens nobody. Fact: we will never get either, but we can keep working towards it.

Now, how many is 17% of fatal Georgia shootings by LE? Because that does matter.

In 2020, according to AJC’s own map and tracking, the 17% of police killings that the ‘militarized police’ are responsible for would be 6 or 7 people.

In 2018, the last year referenced in the article. The ‘out of control militarized police’ killed 8 or 9 people, since it is impossible to kill half a person. The non militarized police were responsible for the remaining 41 or 42. Now using statistical correlation (fancy way of saying “math”) to see how many of 2018’s likely presented the officer with no credible threat? 5.4% of 50 is 2.7 so two, maybe three of the 50 killed in the state may have posed no observed credible threat to the officer(s) or bystanders. Apply that to 8 or 9 killed by the ‘militarized’ LE and we end up with a rough estimate of 50% that one of the shootings was against an individual who posed no observed credible threat.

But we likely have data on those 8 or 9 incidents, as well as the years prior and after, to make more detailed determinations in each unique case.

Whatever link exists is partially psychological. Acquiring war gear instills a war mindset. Citizens become “civilians.” Criminal suspects become enemy combatants. Neighborhoods become war zones. And the rhetoric used by officers and officials reflects this mindset. None of this warfighter mentality reflects what’s actually happening in Georgia. The flow of military gear has remained steady, even as criminal activity declines.

I would love to hear the recordings or read the reports where anyone involved in an incident was referred to as an ‘enemy combatant’. Nidal Hasan, the now convicted terrorist who shot up the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness center, convicted of 13 murders and 32 attempted murders, was referred to a ‘suspect’ and retained his rank of Major until he was convicted and the rank formally revoked. He was never an enemy combatant, despite perhaps being the most worthy criminal inmate of the title.

The similarities between warfighting and fighting for your life are obvious, but just because there is overlap does not make an officer practicing to protect their life, lives of their partner and team, and lives in the community, a warfighter. Also, who gave them a ‘warfighter’ mentality? Could it be the War on drugs? War on poverty? War on ______? The rhetoric from extreme political angles that consistently argue the police are at war with them and are worthy of death? Tell someone enough times that you two are at war and they are probably going to believe you.

From 2009 to 2018, police departments in Georgia received $43.5 million in firearms, vehicles and other gear from the military, a figure that experts believe is deeply discounted because the material is used. All that equipment has been requested despite the fact that violent crime rates in Georgia have dropped by one third over that period, according to FBI crime statistics.

Some may suggest the flow of military equipment to law enforcement agencies has resulted in a better-behaved populace. But there’s no correlation between armored vehicles and lower crime rates.

A newly published article by a group of scholars with the Emory University Department of Political Science found no relationship between the presence of surplus military equipment and lower crime rates.

There’s no correlation between armored vehicles and lower crime rates? Brilliant, stunning, and brave (if I do say so) analysis. Point at a piece of equipment only designed to be used in extremely dangerous and rare criminal incidents and tell us it didn’t reduce the number of more mundane events. They don’t roll an MRAP when a call, criminal or no, can be handled by a pair of patrol cars. I bet the number of fire engines available also didn’t reduce the number of things that caught on fire.

Social outreach, public trust, and officers working at the community level reduce crime. Reducing harmful events would perhaps be most accurate. The MRAP is for when those efforts don’t work. You could also reduce crime by decriminalizing certain acts, but you wouldn’t necessarily have a positive impact on reducing harmful incidents.

You can make your criminal assault and homicide rates vanish overnight with the stroke of a pen. It would not mean less people got injured or killed deliberately by others though, just that no crime took place.

Fortunately, there are some in the law enforcement community who recognize the damage the acquisition of military gear can do to community relationships, even if those items may be occasionally beneficial. Calhoun Police Chief Tony Pyle says he’s limited his acquisitions and has worked at reverting the war-like mindset in the department since he took over two years ago.

Ah yes, the Appeal to Authority. This man, Chief Tony Pyle, he is on the ‘right track’ and knows that even when the equipment is used for good outcomes it is still bad. Because reasons. *sigh*

The number of officers who have to fight against their politically appointed upper management to carry life saving equipment like tourniquets and weapon mounted flashlights to better see if someone is a threat or not doesn’t fill me with confidence in this declaration by Chief Pyle. Chief’s are not known for in general for their boundless wisdom. They do have a reputation as political yes men, angrily resisting change especially if its expensive, and come in a wide range of quality levels. The title ‘Chief’ doesn’t tell me much of anything.

Pyle said he turned down the offer of a $750,000 armored vehicle, despite the fact that there are dozens of them in departments around the state.

“It was basically a tank with wheels, I said, ‘Absolutely not. We do not want that thing rolling down the streets of Calhoun,’” he said. “In my humble opinion, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

Yeah? They’re super expensive to maintain too. But that doesn’t sound as supportive of ‘fighting militarization’. Budget to maintain it, budget to train officers to drive it, number of past incidents in Calhoun where the vehicle would have been useful and available, projection of future needs based on population trends… Saying no to an up-armored anything is easy math. There are a ton of departments that do not need it. That doesn’t influence departments who do.

It is a simple equation, does having and maintaining this equipment JIC make sense or can the expected tasks be accomplished with patrol vehicles safely?

Pyle said he thinks military-style gear and clothing can have an impact on a department.

It can, but not as much as the attitude of their leadership.

Along with shelving the M14s…

Your officers were using M14‘s!? For what, parades? Close order drill? Please do not say patrol rifle… Get your guys some 5.56’s and yes, shelve those 60’s era 6 MOA behemoths. A nice 7lb M4 with a flashlight, a dot on top, and some gold dots in the magazine and your entire staff will thank you kindly.

… Pyle said he ordered officers to wear traditional police uniforms, instead of the navy blue combat fatigues they had worn in the city for more than a decade.

Again, this I am onboard with. I like officers with that semi-business professional image. I want their uniforms functional and comfortable too, but I can get on board with cultivating the comfortable community professional image. No ties though, chocking hazard.

Unfortunately, there are still far too many agencies cultivating an “us vs. them” mindset. And the nearly-free equipment and weapons available from the 1033 program are too tempting to pass up. The streets are full of enemies. It only makes sense to prepare for war. If more “civilians” end up dead, that’s just the price they’re expected to pay for public safety.

Excuse me!? Please point me to the department that has an ‘acceptable’ quota on collateral damage and civilian casualties. The department run by someone who thinks that as long as only X many people are killed in the crossfire, its worth it for “public safety” or some such nonsense. Name for me the police department that doesn’t acknowledge that “civilians” are the Public in Public Safety. The ‘us vs. them’ polarized mentality is also not unique to LE alone. “Pigs in a blanket, fry them like bacon.” seems fairly binary in a very ‘us vs. them’ sense.

But, who knows. Maybe it is that evil 1033 gear.

*Humvee revs MILITARISTICALLY* …and then breaks… militaristically.

Keith Finch
Keith is the former Editor-in-Chief of GAT Marketing Agency, Inc. He got told there was a mountain of other things that needed doing, so he does those now and writes here when he can. A USMC Infantry Veteran and Small Arms and Artillery Technician, Keith covers the evolving training and technology from across the shooting industry. Teaching since 2009, he covers local concealed carry courses, intermediate and advanced rifle courses, handgun, red dot handgun, bullpups, AKs, and home defense courses for civilians, military client requests, and law enforcement client requests.