The use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and other forms of “militarized policing” doesn’t deter violent crime. Instead it harms police reputation and disproportionately affects black communities, according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences.
Author Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, found that militarized police units do not appear to provide the safety benefits (either to the public or to police officers) that many police administrators claim.
Mummolo used a nationwide panel measuring the presence of active SWAT teams and a list of every SWAT team deployment in the state of Maryland over a five-year period (8,200 deployments in all) to collect data that showed no significant evidence acquiring a SWAT team lowers crime or promotes officer safety.
These findings, he suggested, should inform the national debate about where to draw the line in policing between the protection of civil liberties and public safety.
“The lack of any robust association between militarized policing and public and officer safety shown here calls the validity of these claimed benefits into question,” Mummolo noted.
Moreover, instead of protecting communities, the deployment of SWAT teams had the adverse affect of further angering the public, he wrote.
Using survey experiments—one of which included a large oversample of African American respondents—Mummolo showed that seeing militarized police in news reports diminished police reputation in mass public opinion.
“What we learn from the present analysis is that militarized policing can impose reputational costs on law enforcement, likely in unintended ways. This is troubling, since prior work shows that negative views of police inhibit criminal investigations and are associated with stunted civic participation,” he wrote.
African Americans had an even lower amount of confidence in the police (21 percent) than their white counterparts. Mummolo credits this lack of trust to the over-policing and militarization in black communities.
The routine use of militarized police tactics by local agencies threatens to increase the historic tensions between marginalized groups and the state, with no detectable public safety benefit, he said.
“While SWAT teams arguably remain a necessary tool for violent emergency situations, restricting their use to those rare events may improve perceptions of police with little or no safety loss,” Mummolo argued.
He suggested that SWAT teams should be scrapped as part of an overall effort to curb militarized police practices in the interests of police as well as ordinary citizens.
A copy of the study can be found here.
Megan Hadley is a staff reporter with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.