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Federal Subsidies to State and Local Governments and the Militarization of Police:

The widespread use of aggressive no-knock police raids - often criticized here and in Radley Balko's important study - is just part of a broader trend towards the militarization of police departments over the last forty years. In this recent column, law professor Glenn Reynolds (AKA - Instapundit) summarizes some of the negative effects. For me, as a student of federalism, it was interesting to learn that the militarization of police forces was in large part stimulated by federal subsidies to state governments:

Abetting this trend was the federal government's willingness to make surplus military equipment available to police and sheriffs' departments. All sorts of hardware is available, from M-16s to body armor to armored personnel carriers and even helicopters. Lots of police departments grabbed the gear and started SWAT teams, even if they had no real need for them. The materiel was free, and it was fun. I don't blame the police. Heck, if somebody gave me a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to play with, I'd probably start a SWAT team, too—so long as I didn't have to foot the maintenance bill.

These in-kind federal subsidies in reduce the cost of militarization for police. They also make militarized policing more attractive relative to traditional policing (which does not receive comparable equipment subsidies).

I have repeatedly criticized federal subsidization of state and local governments in much of my academic work, particularly Closing the Pandora's Box of Federalism: The Case for Judicial Restriction of Federal Subsidies to State Governments, 90 Georgetown Law Journal 461 (2002) (unfortunately not available online to those without Lexis or Westlaw access), and this 2004 article coauthored with John McGinnis. Among the predictable results of federal subsidies to the states are the growth of state public services whose costs (borne in large part by out of state taxpayers) exceed their benefits, and the distortion of local and state government spending priorities by federal mandates. In this case, there is no federal mandate, but local governments end up overmilitarizing their police forces because military-style police equipment is virtually a free good for local governments in cases where it can be acquired for free from the feds, or at prices far below market rates. Once a SWAT team or other paramilitary police unit is established, basic public choice theory suggests that it will become an influential lobby for its own perpetuation or expansion - even if less aggressive police tactics are in fact preferable.

I do not have an easy solution for the general problem of overmilitarized policing. But there is a simple fix for this part of it: the federal government should not provide free or discounted military equipment to state and local police. It should charge market prices for any equipment transferred from the military to local and state governments. Some police forces will still overmilitarize, but the incentive to do so will be reduced if state and local governments have to pay the full cost of militarization.

UPDATE: Radley Balko has more info on the ways in which federal government policy contributes to the militarization of police forces in this new post. Here's a small excerpt:

Taking taxpayer-funded equipment originally bought and designed for use on a foreign aggressor and giving it to local police departments for use against American citizens is a rather egregious violation of the principles of federalism. Literally millions of pieces of military equipment have been transfered from DoD to Mayberry.

I was floored while researching Overkill when, to give just one example, I read about how a sheriff in a rural county in Florida managed to assemble his own air force -- helicopters and private jets -- courtesy of the Pentagon. There are equally shocking examples from all over the country. It would be nice if Congress would enact legislation to end this program. That isn't federal meddling. It's ending an existing, ill-advised federal program.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Federal Subsidies to State and Local Governments and the Militarization of Police:
  2. Are the Warrant Documents Released in the Atlanta Case Forgeries?:
James968 (mail):
At one point it time LAPD was supposed to get beyonets. A good book that discusses how the trend to militarize the police started is "Smoke and Mirrors" by Dan Baum (?).
11.29.2006 12:23am
Inkling (www):
Now I understand why a friend who's husband is getting police training in Washington state told me that police were using attack rifles instead of shotguns as their weapon of last resort. Then it made no sense. Now it does. It seems a M-16 can be gotten for little or nothing as military surplus and of course it looks much more macho that a shotgun that every Bubba has in his pickup.

I certainly didn't buy her echoed claim that an attack rifle is safer for innocent people. I fired the Finnish equivalent of an AK-47 through a stump two-feet thick and through perhaps ten layers of soft steel in a stove. A bullet that can do that can pass through the walls of half a dozen apartments, killing a child or sleeping baby in each. Bubba's shotgun wouldn't do that.

While we certainly don't want our law enforcement to become as wimpy as that in the UK, we do need to cut down on all this silly male macho stuff--no knock raids when no life is at risk and an excess of military weaponery.

And while we're at it, we need to train the police not to fire first and think later. All too many unarmed people are killed by cops who think their .40 Glock is a defensive weapon, firing when they should be ducking to make sure the other guy is reaching for a gun rather than a wallet. I worked with dangerous people in a homeless shelter and always made it a rule to be prepared to deflect the first blow or knife stroke rather than be the aggressor. That's why I had zero incidents.

Just a few blocks from where I once lived, a foreign exchange student was killed reaching for his wallet. The cop made the approach. Why, I asked myself, didn't he position his vehicle so he could duck behind it rather than think he had to fire when the guy reached for something. And that's not getting into the stupidity that inspired the cop to make his approach in the first place. A convenience store a few blocks away had been robbed and this unfortunate student fit the robber's description. But what robber drives only a few blocks from the scene and stops for gas? I'm sure the cop felt a lot of guilt afterward, but if he'd had been thinking, he'd have treated this guy as unlikely to be the robber. And if he'd been trained properly, he would not have fired on a mere preceived threat.
11.29.2006 12:37am
Nate F (mail):
I have noticed this myself, and often wondered what the cause was. I attend a school somewhat famous for rowdy postgame celebrations, and the kind of equipment the police use to deal with "riots" (which, despite law enforcement's repeated use of the term, have only very rarely involved any real property damage or violence) is a little obscene. Especially given the number of muggings that happen in a given month.

On a law enforcement related note, I am sorry if some of you find this spam-y but I cannot find any information on this from anyone, anywhere, to save my life, and a lot of people are knowledgable about the law here. A class C misdemeanor citation (park after hours), federal, no arrest or fingerprints, Maryland. Two things: does paying the fine constitute a plea of guilty/nolo contendre, and what are the chances of it coming up in a background check? (does paying the fine or going to court make that more or less likely?) If you are reasonably certain, I would owe you big time if you emailed me. Again, sorry to do this here, I am just totally lost, even the lawyer I asked gave me advice I know is wrong. I guess I'll understand if this post needs to be deleted.
11.29.2006 1:05am
Fnord (mail):
I think that it's more a matter of philosophy than federal subsidies. No-knock raids would be almost as dangerous to non-violent suspects if they were performed with standard sidearms. The philosophical problem is the increasing treatment of all suspects as if they were dangerous, despite evidence to the contrary. Hence, the use of no-knock warrants against non-violent offenders, Inkling's shooting story, the taser use against a passively resisting student at UCLA, etc. Not being a law enforcement specialist, I'm not sure how it could be fixed, but everytime someone who is not a imminent risk is injured by the police, there's a problem.

This is not to say that reduction of federal subsidies for police departments are a bad idea in there own right.
11.29.2006 1:31am
CDU (mail):
"I certainly didn't buy her echoed claim that an attack rifle is safer for innocent people. I fired the Finnish equivalent of an AK-47 through a stump two-feet thick and through perhaps ten layers of soft steel in a stove. A bullet that can do that can pass through the walls of half a dozen apartments, killing a child or sleeping baby in each."

The 5.56mm round fired by the M-16 is actually a pretty lousy penetrator, much worse than the 7.62x39mm round the AK you fired uses. In fact, the 5.56mm will penetrate fewer interior walls than a 9mm handgun.
11.29.2006 1:46am
K Parker (mail):
CDU,
In fact, the 5.56mm will penetrate fewer interior walls than a 9mm handgun.
Somebody who's actually tried it out completely disagrees with you.
11.29.2006 3:24am
Beerslurpy (mail) (www):
Pine boards != drywall. If your interior walls are made of pine boards, I apologize.
11.29.2006 5:44am
Beerslurpy (mail) (www):
Pine boards != drywall. If your interior walls are made of pine boards, I apologize.

Also, "assault rifles" vary enormously in terms of penetration and terminal effect. The marines did a bunch of cover penetration tests on various rifles. The 7.62x39 outpenetrated every rifle caliber below the 308 caliber machine guns. The M16 and M249 SAW have weak penetration of brick, concrete, wood and metal while the AK has unusually strong penetration of most barrier materials.

Generally speaking, slow, heavy and sturdy projectiles will penetrate better than a small, fast and fragile projectile with equivalent kinetic energy. The smaller projectile tends to spend its energy falling apart rather than penetrating. This applies to handgun rounds as well, providing you can find handgun rounds comparable to rifle rounds in terms of KE.
11.29.2006 5:49am
PersonFromPorlock:
Fnord:

The philosophical problem is the increasing treatment of all suspects as if they were dangerous, despite evidence to the contrary.

True enough, but if we demand that everyone be treated the same the police are, as a precaution, going to treat everyone as a threat. I have to say that I suspect them of enjoying the resulting Drama, though.
11.29.2006 7:42am
Jeek:
But there is a simple fix for this part of it: the federal government should not provide free or discounted military equipment to state and local police.

Seems to me the problem is not necessarily what they have, but how they use what they have. I think it comes back to holding the police strictly accountable and liable for any injuries or property damage that occur as a result of the use of this "military" equipment (or any other kind of equipment). If they break the wrong things or shoot the wrong people as a result of a botched no-knock raid, they should pay. That approach will address the "demand" side of the equation as well as the "supply" side that you argue for here.
11.29.2006 7:51am
Stryker:
K Parker,
It would be interesting to see how the Shotgun would have done. My understanding is that the spread of a sawed off shotgun is such that you really have know Idea who will be hit. I've heard of urban combat teams using shotguns (in decleared war) and refering to them as "street sweepers."
Inkling,
When is "last resort?"
11.29.2006 10:04am
Houston Lawyer:
While I agree that the militarization of the police is overkill, I don't believe that I've read about anyone being killed by overpenetration of an assault rifle used by the police. From what I've seen, the police actually meant to kill those people who they shot.

Assault rifles are not great killers, unless you hit a vital organ. This is by design. It is far better to wound an opponent in battle than kill him. Wounded men must be tended to by their comrades. I'd far rather be hit by a 5.56mm bullet than a full blast of buckshot from a 12 gauge or a soft-tipped bullet from a deer rifle.
11.29.2006 10:24am
Anon Y. Mous:
I think the key word left out of your post is 'surplus'. Just what is the market value of surplus military equipment. Equipment that the government can't just sell to the general public, and that it has to store at whatever expense.

Considering the limited marketplace in which they can sell this surplus equipment, perhaps they are actually are getting fair market price.
11.29.2006 10:32am
Byomtov (mail):
Lots of police departments grabbed the gear and started SWAT teams, even if they had no real need for them. The materiel was free, and it was fun. I don't blame the police.

If any more evidence that Reynolds is a moron were needed this is it.

Does it ever occur to this law professor that whether something is fun ought not be a consideration in determining appropriate police tactics?
11.29.2006 11:14am
AppSocRes (mail):
The essence of federal criminal justice policy is to take federal tax money (that is drawn away from local jurisdictions) and promise to give this money back to other local police jurisdictions that either do or pretend to do what the feds want them to do. The result is usually to take tax money away from jurisdictions that desperately need it and inefficiently redistrbute that money in dribs and drabs on profligate and useless criminal justice ventures across the country.

I once did a fairly detailed analysis of the impact of Clinton's COPS program on the hiring of local police officers. The intention of the program was to provide seed money to put 100,000 new police on the street and enhance community policing programs. Data from the program suggested that eventually -- and long after the originally planned time and expenditure -- money from the program was used by local police departments to fund the hiring about 100,000 new officers. A simple time-series analysis of the annual number of new police hires from ten years before the program, through the program, and after showed a rock-steady trend in new police officer hires: Apparently departments used COPS money to fill already-planned new positions and then diverted their regular budget to other services. Similarly, anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of new hire "community policing money" (based on federal taxes drawn from large police jurisdictions who desperately needed it) was frivolously spent on "sexy" police equipment and un-needed officers in rural departments that didn't need or have a clue what community policing was.

The beauty of COPS from a congressman's viewpoint was that it slathered the pork evenly rather than getting it to places where it was really needed. An analysis by the Urban Institute suggested that the program was a marvelous success: But nowhere did the UI report compare projected total police hires in the absence of COPS with actual police hires during its existence. It is very seldom indeed that "evaluators" of federal programs find serious problems with these programs. Evaluators who do soon stop receiving evaluation contracts.

The whole un-consitutional involvement of the feds in local issues is corrupt beyond redemption.
11.29.2006 12:14pm
markm (mail):
"Assault rifles are not great killers, unless you hit a vital organ. This is by design. It is far better to wound an opponent in battle than kill him. Wounded men must be tended to by their comrades. I'd far rather be hit by a 5.56mm bullet than a full blast of buckshot from a 12 gauge or a soft-tipped bullet from a deer rifle."

That's a big mark against assault rifles for police work (and also for the kind of combat our military is getting into lately). They can't count on the criminal (or terrorist) who is perforated by a small hole to lay down and scream for the medic, like a civilized soldier. If police fire at all, they should be aiming to knock the guy down and ensure he can't shoot back, and the .223 caliber cartridge of the AR15/M16 is a quite poor choice for that. At least in Michigan, it's illegal to use that caliber for deer hunting, even in hollow-point, because too many deer will run away after being hit fatally and never be found - and deer average about 80 pounds, half as big as men.

I recall a case in the DC area about 1988 or so, where a drug addict took PCP when his usual fix became unavailable and went nuts. He was holding a family hostage in their home. Two police were in the open, moving across the lawn, when he came through the door with a shotgun. Two SWAT snipers shot him through the chest with AR15's, but after taking those hits he was still able to fire the shotgun twice, killing two cops.
11.29.2006 12:32pm
Fnord (mail):

"if we demand that everyone be treated the same the police are, as a precaution, going to treat everyone as a threat."


The police should not be forced, or even allowed, to treat suspects of violent crimes and non-violent crimes the same way. There might be some uncertainty at the margin, but a suspected armed robber is different from a shoplifter or a fraud suspect.

Persons suspected of drug offenses (or credit card fraud, or other nonviolent crimes) shouldn't be served with no-knock warrants unless there's other evidence that they are likely to be dangerous. Military style dynamic entries should be reserved for suspects likely to use violence, such as hostage takers, terrorists, gang members, etc.

There are still some vague situations, like the aforementioned armed robbers. However, in this case, I don't see that the police presented any evidence that the suspect was involved in violence at all.

Likewise, the police should be apply the minimum force required to ensure their safety and that of bystanders. If a suspect is holding a hostage or firing at the police or bystander, by all means shoot them. A shooting is possibly appropriate if the suspect is attacking the police, even without a gun, that's an ambiguous case. A suspect merely trying to flee should probably not be shot, but aggressive actions, like the use of tasers or rubber bullets, may be justified. The same for someone actively disobeying police instructions, like a person crossing a police barricade. A passively resisting suspect is probably best manhandled.

I admit that citing Inkling's example was a mistake, on reflection; given that the victim was suspected of armed robbery, a lethal response may have been appropriate. I'd need to know details.
11.29.2006 1:13pm
Jeek:
Assault rifles are not great killers, unless you hit a vital organ. This is by design. It is far better to wound an opponent in battle than kill him.

Not so. They are designed for high lethality at the short ranges in which most engagements occur.

I'd far rather be hit by a 5.56mm bullet than a full blast of buckshot from a 12 gauge or a soft-tipped bullet from a deer rifle.

Hmmmm, OK, I challenge you to put on a kevlar vest and let me shoot you from ten feet away with both my shotgun and my AR, and we'll see which one penetrates the vest.

they should be aiming to knock the guy down and ensure he can't shoot back, and the .223 caliber cartridge of the AR15/M16 is a quite poor choice for that.

Thousands of dead Iraqis and Vietnamese disagree.

It is certainly an excellent choice if you're in the same room with the guy you're shooting, as you would be in a no-knock raid.
11.29.2006 2:28pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Prohibition always creates these kinds of problems.

Do they still teach alcohol prohibition in schools?
11.29.2006 2:55pm
K Parker (mail):
Uhh, Beerslurpy, you might want to back off on the beverage a bit; it seems to be affecting your comprehension. The article cited tested sheetrock first, using 12 spaced gypsum boards (the equivalent of 6 interior walls.) Every round except .22 penetrated all 12 sheets, including 5.56mm and 9mm.

Then, when they switched to boards, the 5.56mm penetrated further than 9mm. It's not clear to me why you think this doesn't contradict CDU's original statement.

(Incidentally, several rooms in our house do have knotty pine paneling, some of it over the sheetrock, some of it in place of it, but that's really irrelevant to the question.)

Stryker, ask and you shall receive. Though of course the guys running Box'o'Truth did not test a shorter-than-legal shotgun! Dispersion for a standard shotgun is such that with a cylinder choke (max dispersion) you'll get around 70% of the pellets within a 30 inch diameter at 25 yards. How that relates to typical law-enforcement practice is beyond my expertise, alas.
11.29.2006 4:59pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Milton Friedman estimated that drug prohibitiion kills 2,000 innocents a year (innocent bystanders, stray bullets, botched raids, etc.)

It is not a bug, it is a feature.

Anybody look at the stats for the decline in criminal violence once alcohol prohibition ended?

We subsidize violence on all sides of this equation and then we complain there is too much violence. Or try to figure out what policy or weapons system will mitigate the disaster. Tinkering at the margins.

Give me a break.

Let me make it simple for those too smart by half. Reduce the violence police have to deal with and police will become less violent. Rocket science, no?

End drug prohibition, you fools.
11.30.2006 5:59am