The Militarization of Police in the US

At the end of August, US president Barack Obama ordered a review of federal programs that enable local and state law enforcement agencies to receive or purchase military equipment. This decision was prompted by the unsettling images of heavily armed police officers during clashes that followed the recent fatal shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

Within one such federal program, the “1033 program” initiated in 1991, over $5.1 billion in military hardware was transferred to date to 8000 local and state law enforcement agencies in the United States.  Since 2006, police have received tens of thousands of pieces of surplus military equipment from the government worth almost $2 billion. This includes, 80,000 rifles, 50 fixed wing airplanes, over 400 helicopters, 350 boats, 350 armored vehicles, among them dozens of mine resistant vehicles, and close to 20,000 pieces of night vision and infrared gear. As of 2014, 184 police departments had been suspended from the program for failure to comply with guidelines and missing weapons ranging from assault rifles to armored Humvees.

In May, The New York Times requested and received a database of military equipment transfers (2006-2014) from the Pentagon. I obtained this raw data from the GitHub account where the Times graciously posted it. I was inspired by the work of NYT graphics department on this topic but the visualization below represents my interpretation of the data. I presented the dollar value and quantities of the military gear transferred to individual states and counties. I also combined it with population statistics to normalize the acquisition numbers and get a better idea of the size of per capita transfers. Finally, I looked at the relationship between crime statistics and the size of transfers to individual states, and I investigated crime and police homicide trends over the last decade.

Douglas Galloway - Great Viz ! very relevant and telling of what may or may not be a really dangerous epidemic. Is the 210M is enough to support a small war.

George Gorczynski - Thank you for your comment, Douglas. Agreed, the numbers are staggering. It would be interesting to know how this equipment is being utilized (i.e. 79 helicopters, 8 airplanes and a mine resistant vehicle in Brevard County alone). In some cases the acquisitions may be justified and we all want the police force to be adequately equipped and protected. But the trend is certainly troubling.

AOK ManRay - I’m all about constantly examining policies and their effectiveness, and correcting when we see waste or no improvement or–worst of all–making things worse through unintended consequences. However, I wanted to highlight a major fallacy that you hint at here. By highlighting the areas that have high militarization and low crime, you are suggesting that this is inappropriate. But how do you know that there is no cause and effect here? I have no idea whether that’s true or not, I just feel that it’s something to be considered. If that were true, then it would be more worthwhile to highlight those who have high military spending and high crime–why has the system failed them? Or have they only more recently received equipment? Or maybe it was even higher before? I have no answers to these questions, just wanted to highlight the challenges with correlations…

Beautiful viz, btw! Very clear, concise and easy to read. Thanks for sharing!

George Gorczynski - You raised a very good point, thanks. More granular (state/county level) analysis of crime rate trends would be valuable.

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