UT study: Military gear does not make law enforcement more aggressive

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Accessing military equipment through the federal government does not cause police to be more aggressive, according to new research published this week by a group of educators at the University of Tennessee.

All of this comes after President Trump’s decision to rescind an Obama executive order prohibiting military-grade weapons and clothing from being transferred from the military to local police agencies. .

Researchers at the University of Tennessee came together to answer the question on the minds of many: what are the effects of providing military equipment to local law enforcement?

“Like most people, we were struck by the images that we saw in Ferguson in 2014, with heavily armed police, and often very upset protestors,” Matt Harris, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee and researcher at UT’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, said, “and while we were concerned, as social scientists, we were also curious as to whether anyone had undertaken a rigorous, data-driven analysis, of the relationship between police departments receiving these items, this military equipment, and outcomes that people cared about.”

Harris said his team conducted a two-year project, where they collected and analyzed data from  more than 300 law enforcement agencies that voluntarily applied and received military equipment from the government through the 1033 program.

These items include things like guns, grenade launchers and mine-resistant vehicles.

“From our report, based upon the best available data, suggests that on-average, that these items led to increased numbers of arrests for drug possession and drug sales, they appear to reduce complaints, they appear to have positive protection benefits for police in regard to reduced assaults and reduced fatalities in the line of duty, and from the best available data that we have, did not appear to lead to increased citizen deaths in and of themselves,” Harris said.

The Knoxville Police Department has been participating in the program since the 1990s, according to former Police Chief Phil Keith.

“Tactical gear is essential in a life-threatening environment and has helped immensely in Knoxville,” Keith said.

Keith said some of the gear the department receives are AR15s, ballistic helmets, and military shields.

Harris noted that this equipment is helpful in de-escalating situations, and is not utilized unless the threat is elevated to the point where officer or citizen lives are threatened.

This marks the first research to evaluate the consequences for local communities of police departments that receive tactical gear through the 1033 program. Harris hopes the study will inspire future research on the topic and encourage local law enforcement agencies to be more transparent.

“Our results indicate that these items appear to reduce complaints, not increase them, but we do not believe that the data that we currently have available are sufficient to provide a definitive answer to the question,” Harris said. “We made a call for greater transparency and oversight of this program in our paper. We’re in the data business, and better data gives us the ability to do better research, which we hope can inform better policy and we hope the public deserves that.”

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