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?: