Washington DC (March 28) – Since 2006, police departments across the United States have procured over 435 armored vehicles, 533 military aircraft and 93,763 machine guns. However, the proliferation of this military-level equipment among police departments has little law enforcement utility. Rather, it has often become a substitute for more appropriate tools that officers have traditionally carried.

In a new policy paper, R Street Director of Justice and National Security Policy, Arthur Rizer examines the use of military equipment by police departments and the utility of that equipment for the mission of policing. The paper also explores the effect of such equipment on the profession more generally. And finally, it recommends solutions to ensure that police officers have the tools they need to be safe and to keep their communities secure without blurring the lines between crime-fighter and war-fighter.

Recent research suggests that the growing use of military equipment has contributed to an uptick in police violence. One explanation for this is that access to these tools increases the probability that they will be used for a given problem even when other tools may be more appropriate. Police officers rarely need camouflage, assault rifles and armored vehicles. And worse, when they are utilized in the police mission, they not only increase the chance of violence, but they make it more difficult for officers to properly fulfill their mission to protect and serve.

Policing is a dangerous job and it’s more than reasonable that officers, especially in large cities, should have the equipment they need to do their jobs safely. However, there is a fine line between the police mission “[t]o protect and serve” and the soldier’s “to engage and destroy.” What police do need are better, more emotionally and intellectually equipped colleagues, better training and professional development opportunities, and a more effective and responsible policy with respect to sharing resources between the military and the police.

The paper concludes, “police are heroes who perform an almost impossible job with very little resources . . . . we must ensure that [they] have a clear mission and are properly equipped to behave like the public servant heroes we expect them to be, rather than the soldiers we expect the military to be.”