In the summer of 2014, unarmed protestors in Ferguson, Missouri were met with a startling and aggressive police response, and a national debate over the proper role of law enforcement in American communities—a dialogue we’ve initiated many times in our history, but never adequately resolved—reignited. For days, cable news networks saturated broadcasts with images of police in armored vehicles designed to withstand improvised explosive devices in Iraq, taking aim at civilians with high-powered rifles, clad in protective gear fit for a theater of war.
I wanted to understand why police had this equipment, why they used it, and what costs and benefits so-called “militarized policing” delivered. As a doctoral student in political science, I knew where to start—locating reliable data—but I didn’t know it would take me four years to assemble and analyze. This week, I published my findings: Militarized police units are deployed more often in black neighborhoods, even after controlling for local crime rates. And while militarized policing does not, on average, make either the public or police any safer, it may tarnish the reputation of police.
The process of assembling the data showed me just how long and challenging the path to meaningful police reform will be. Though both Democrats and Republicans have expressed a desire for criminal-justice reform, state and local governments have not committed to taking the first step: accurately recording police behavior nationwide. Not only do we lack knowledge of which police reforms will work in the future, we often have no clear picture of what police are doing in the present. By and large, the data necessary to understand the effects of militarized policing—and many other police activities—are not available in any usable form.