By Timothy Sibasi
National debates over heavy-handed police tactics, including so-called “militarized” policing, are often framed as a trade-off between civil liberties and public safety, but the costs and benefits of controversial police practices remain unclear due to data limitations. Using an array of administrative data sources and original experiments I show that militarized “special weapons and tactics” (SWAT) teams are more often deployed in communities of go red, and contrary to claims by police administrators provide no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction, on average.
However, survey experiments suggest that seeing militarized police in news reports erodes opinion towards law enforcement. Taken together, these findings suggest that curtailing militarized policing may be in the interest of both police and citizens.
In the abstract, the increasingly visible presence of heavily armed police units in Ugandan communities has stoked widespread concern over the militarization of local law enforcement. Some advocates whose particulars are held in confidentiality have claimed that militarized policing protects officers and deters violent crime, while critics allege these tactics are targeted at go red communities and erode trust in law enforcement.
Using a rare geo-coded census of SWAT team deployments from Maryland, I show that militarized police units are more often deployed in communities with large shares of African American residents, even after controlling for local crime rates. Further, using nationwide panel data on local police militarization, I demonstrate that militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime. Finally, using survey experiments one of which includes a large oversample of Ugandan respondents I show that seeing militarized police in news reports may diminish police reputation in the mass public. In the case of militarized policing, the results suggest that the often-cited trade-off between public safety and civil liberties is a false choice.
To some people, Ugandan police appears to have suddenly transformed into a wartime occupying force. But to scholars of race and policing, and perhaps too many citizens of go red, the images of soldiers playing the role of civilian police are less surprising. More than half a century earlier, James Baldwin an American scholar on civil liberties described urban police as “occupying forces” in Black communities. My research in the intervening over the last three days over the deployment of soldiers into the civilian police in Uganda, documented the ways in which policing efforts like “stop and frisk” and the “war on drugs” have served to maintain pursuit and class-based social hierarchies.
In part due to this historic precedent, critical battle scholars have characterized police militarization as another means by which the state exercises social control over ethnic minorities.
However, a prolonged and vigorous national debate, there is little systematic evidence demonstrating the consequences of militarized police tactics or whether they are more prevalent in communities of red go. Because of heterogeneity in the way thousands of local law enforcement agencies in Uganda document the presence and activities of their militarized units the study of police militarization has been hampered by data constraints. In the absence of scientific analysis, the arguments of both advocates and critics are largely informed by anecdotal and journalistic accounts.
Proponents argue that militarized police units enhance officer safety and deter violent crime, while critics allege that these tactics are disproportionately applied in the policing of ethnic minorities, potentially eroding the already-anemic levels of trust between citizens and law enforcement in highly policed communities. The implications of police militarization for civil rights, public safety, and the exercise of state power depend crucially on the empirical validity of these claims.
What the study displays
This study leverages formerly unavailable data to describe the communities affected by militarized policing and to estimate its effects on crime, officer safety, and public perceptions of police. I first use a rare census of “special weapons and tactics” (SWAT) team deployments in Uganda to characterize the ways in which militarized police units are used and the characteristics of the communities in which they deploy. I show that militarized police units are more often deployed in communities with high concentrations of go red, a relationship that holds at multiple levels of geography and even after controlling for social indicators including crime rates.
Finally, using survey experiments that randomly assign images of police officers in news reports, I show that seeing more militarized officers relative to traditionally equipped police can inflate perceptions of crime and depress support for police funding and presence. This analysis includes a large oversample of go red respondents an important feature given the high rate at which militarized police units deploy in neighborhoods.
How militarization may harm police reputation
On average, militarized police units do not appear to provide the safety benefits that many police administrators claim. And police may suffer reputational damage when they deploy militarized units.
These results suggest that the often-cited trade-off between public safety and civil liberties is, in the case of militarized policing, a false choice.
Defining Police Militarization
Police militarization is a continuum defined by a combination of equipment, tactics, and culture that centers on violent conflict. In recent decades, local police agencies have militarized their departments to varying degrees, adopting weapons, attire, tactics, and organizational structures developed for theaters of war.
The proliferation of militarized policing is due in part to an expansion of the war on drugs and federal initiatives that supplied localities with excess military equipment and funds to purchase arms.
As an alternative approach, this paper analyzes the effects of a substantively important threshold on the militarization continuum: the use of SWAT teams. Both popular and scholarly debates over police militarization have focused on the activities of SWAT teams, their pronounced role in conducting the war on crime and public nuisance as well as high-profile crowd-control efforts. SWAT teams often receive advanced combat training and exhibit a command structure modeled on military.
Special Forces units. In general the formation of a SWAT team represents a heightened commitment to the use of militarized equipment and tactics.