Police Militarization vs. Criminals With Big Guns

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

A. Barton Hinkle has a good column on police militarization today, and not just because he quotes me (though that helps!).

There is one point Hinkle concedes that I’m not sure he should: I’ve still yet to see any empirical data to support the contention that criminals in the U.S. are arming themselves with more powerful weapons—at least in significant numbers. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes to that effect from police officials while justifying their new APV or armament of military-grade machine guns. But nothing in the way of data.

In fact, in Overkill (see pages 27-28), I noted that the only two studies available at the time—one done in 1995 by the National Institute for Justice and one published in 1991 by Dave Kopel and Eric Morgan—came to the opposite conclusion. Both those studies are pretty dated now, but I’ve yet to see anything newer to support the broad contention that criminals in the U.S. are moving toward higher-powered weapons. But I also haven’t tracked the issue as closely as I did while I was researching that paper.  If anyone knows of something more recent, please send it my way, or throw up a link in the comments.

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61 Responses to “Police Militarization vs. Criminals With Big Guns”

  1. #1 |  c andrew | 

    #46 | JSL | August 24th, 2011 at 1:01 pm
    “God forbid all of us be judged by the worst that our peers have to offer. ”

    Cops do this everyday when dealing with the public. They also lately tend to not be able to dial back the “dominate, control” attitudes when its clearly not needed.

    Good point JSL. How often have we heard that “a cop takes his life into his hands every time he makes a traffic stop.” If that isn’t the case, par excellence of “being judged by the worst that our peers have to offer” I don’t know what is. Do you think, Seannyboy you could counsel your peers to walk back that attitude just a wee bit?

  2. #2 |  JOR | 

    “Unless the law itself is wrong, which is fairly common regarding what police may do and get away with.”

    Well to be “fair”, cops fairly often flout written statutes and regulations and only suffer consequences for it when it doesn’t involve massive abuse, so even if it were practically possible (is it even logically possible??) to follow all the laws perfectly, you could still get fucked over by a cop.

  3. #3 |  Steve Verdon | 


    …but the fight probably would’ve stopped sooner if the FBI Agents had had access to a rifle or submachine gun.

    Read the account, they did. The FBI agents that were part of the rolling stake out, but weren’t with the 8 that engaged the known violent criminals were armed with H&K MP-5s and M-16s. It was bad planning to not distribute the fire power they already access to on a more uniform basis and not wait to engage the criminals until those with the better firepower were also in the vicinity of the shoot out.

    But there is a big gap between between agreeing to all these statements and then saying that police should never have any kind of military-style weapon.

    The problem is we give you guys those things and you abuse them. You’ve already stipulated to this. The problem is not us “civilians”, it is the abuse of power and weaponry that have been given to police officers.

    Regarding the 1986 FBI shootout in Miami, the Wikipedia page relays something I found interesting. One of the FBI cars rammed the suspects’ car. As a result of the collision, one of the agents had his gun — which was carelessly placed on the dashboard — fly out the window of the car; the other lost his glasses in the collision and was left effectively blind for the ensuing firefight. It sounds to me like these reckless tactics were what kicked off the fiasco.

    Exactly, part of the problem with the Miami shootout was piss poor training/handling of the situation.

    God forbid all of us be judged by the worst that our peers have to offer. The officers in your examples are an embarrassment to all of us, and I have no defense for them. I share your outrage.

    I understand and I’d be sympathetic if the “good” cops didn’t cover for the bad ones.

  4. #4 |  CyniCAl | 

    #51 | c andrew — “How often have we heard that ‘a cop takes his life into his hands every time he makes a traffic stop.'”

    Great point. We’ve heard it so much that it has become truth even if it is false, because all that matters is that cops are so fearful that they believe they are risking their lives with every traffic stop.

    Not to belabor the point, but it is this fear of death that is the foundation of police brutality. Every increase in police violence is attributed to officer safety. One way to eliminate the fear of death is to make cops invulnerable (another way is to eliminate cops, but the State won’t allow that). Then, if one is interested in limiting the power of cops, make it illegal for them to be armed in the line of duty, or armed only with strictly non-lethal weapons (remember, until quite recently, British police were forbidden to carry firearms).

    Will police powers still be abused? Sure! But what would likely result? I postulate that at worst there would be a dramatic increase in wrongful arrests and at best a dramatic decrease in police brutality and suspect fatalities.

    Anyone here want to argue that police brutality is not an out-of-control problem in desperate need of a solution? Anyone else have any bright ideas that haven’t been tried before?

  5. #5 |  Mannie | 

    #7 | hooglyboogly | August 23rd, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Look at the police that have armed themselves with .50 cal automatic weapons and explain that they need them to combat the drug war. The semi-auto versions available to J.Q.P. are quite expensive and not likely to be owned by the Crips and the Bloods or whatever they call themselves now.

    A Barrett is singularly unsuitable for crime, other than the odd assassination, and I’ve not heard of one to date. You’re going to rob a convenience store with a rifle damn near five feet long that weighs over 30 pounds? You can’t exactly stuff that down your baggy pants. You can’t even shoot it out a car window. Hell, you probably can’t even maneuver it enough to get it out the car window.

    They want shiny toys, not because they need them, but because they are cool and macho.

    #32 | Seannyboy | August 24th, 2011 at 9:15 am

    EH- Not a shill, just a cop in a high crime jurisdiction. Nothing theoretical about this conversation to me.
    Matt I- The Miami Shootout was stopped by one cop with a .38, but only after two FBI Special Agents were killed and several other officers severely injured. All gunfights end, but it’s better if they end quickly. Counterfactuals are iffy without a time machine, but the fight probably would’ve stopped sooner if the FBI Agents had had access to a rifle or submachine gun.

    At what risk to the citizenry? I see no reason to ever give police automatic weapons. Limited use of marksmen with long range rifles, yes. Intermediate power patrol rifles in the cars, perhaps. They never need anything more powerful than a .30-30 Winchester or 7.62 x 39. The old model 1894, or maybe the SKS. No AK47s or AR15s. They pose too much risk of shooting up the neighborhood because they have ammunition to burn. There have been so many cases where they use their high capacity pistols to spray and pray; I almost want to take them away and make them carry wheelguns.

    #38 | Highway | August 24th, 2011 at 10:46 am

    What about an AR-15, or other ‘assault rifle’ or even high powered pistols and rifles allows that to happen. Are they easier to aim (from my limited knowledge, the answer is no)? Are they more accurate in a shootout?

    Any rifle is more accurate, has a longer range, and is easier to deliver accurate aimed fire with than any pistol. Large capacity magazines are probably more useful to the Citizen, as he does not have the luxury of backup officers and may have to move about with only the weapon he has in his hands. I think the ideal rifle for police use would be a bolt action or pump gun in 7.62 x 39mm or 5.56 x 45mm (The AK47 and M16 calibers respectively)

    More powerful pistol calibres are of little use in combat. The argument over 9mm Parabellum vs .45 ACP has been going on since 1911, and now we have the .40 S&W and .357 SIG. But more powerful rounds have not been successful. The FBI played with the 10mm (a .40 magnum if you will) but ended up downloading it to .40 S&W ballistics because the recoil was too much for rapid fire. Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum is a good bear pistol, but a lousy combat pistol.

    #41 | Seannyboy | August 24th, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I have no interest in a fair fight.

    Amen. If it’s a fair fight, you failed to prepare properly.

    It should be noted that having a high powered weapon doesn’t mean you have to use it. Overwhelming an opponent with shock and awe is a good way to not have to kill him. But the shock and awe seems to be used too damn often when patience would serve better and kill fewer Citizens. There would be fewer reasoned objections to police use of high powered weapons if they were perceived to use them responsibly.

  6. #6 |  sigh | 

    All the silly “arms race with criminals” nonsense aside, a .223 rifle is a hell of a lot safer to use in a built up area than either a handgun or a shotgun. It’s a lot more accurate and has less over-penetration in almost any material aside from steel plate. In other words, less chance of shooting someone you don’t intend to.

    Now all we need to do is get them to not shoot people they shouldn’t shoot in the first damn place… Good luck with that one.

  7. #7 |  JS | 

    CyniCal “Anyone here want to argue that police brutality is not an out-of-control problem in desperate need of a solution?”

    Nobody here probably but most Americans and certainly the media don’t act like they think it’s a problem at all. I’ve always believed that as soon as ABC news, CNN, Foxnews, etc. are as outrages about it as we are then the politicians will “suddenly discover” that our police are out of control and the problem will end overnight.

  8. #8 |  JOR | 

    “Not to belabor the point, but it is this fear of death that is the foundation of police brutality.”

    No, the fear of death (to the extent that it’s sincere, which probably isn’t much*) is a co-symptom. If cops these days are truly “in fear for their lives” in most of the situations where they indulge their thuggery, then they’ll manage to stay quite fearful even if you turn them all into robocop.

    *Cops are much more cautious and diplomatic when they really are afraid. If you hear a story about police brutality, 95% safe bet that the victim was no kind of threat at all and the pigs knew it.

  9. #9 |  Steve Verdon | 

    #51 | c andrew — “How often have we heard that ‘a cop takes his life into his hands every time he makes a traffic stop.’”

    Doesn’t this also imply that your average motorist also has his life put at risk during a traffic stop? I’m not a violent person, I don’t want to hurt anyone, but that cop doesn’t know that and might mistake a movement on my part as “going for a weapon” and shoot me.

    Is that fair? No. Should it be? I think I have the right to not have to worry about getting shot by someone who has been given a shiny badge that pretty much will give him a free pass or four for such behavior (and even more sickeningly be lauded as a hero who puts his life on the line for the rest of us…what utter fucking bullshit).

  10. #10 |  September 21 roundup | 

    […] “A Decade After 9/11, Police Departments Are Increasingly Militarized” [Balko, Hinkle, more] […]

  11. #11 |  The Daily Beast, Center for Investigative Reporting Take On Police Militarization | The Agitator | 

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