Agency Correlates of Police Militarization: The Case of MRAPs

AuthorKeith Baker,Brett C. Burkhardt
Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Agency Correlates of
Police Militarization:
The Case of MRAPs
Brett C. Burkhardt
Keith Baker
In 2014, protests in Ferguson, Missouri (MO), and the subsequent law enforcement
response, shined a light on police militarization—the adoption of military styles, equip-
ment, and tactics within law enforcement. Since 1990, the U.S. Department of
Defense has transferred excess military equipment to domestic law enforcement
agencies via the federal 1033 program. This article examines transfers of mine-
resistant ambush-protected vehicles or MRAPs. Designed to withstand explosive
blasts during U.S. military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, surplus MRAPs
have been shipped to more than 800 domestic law enforcement agencies. This article
uses national data on law enforcement agencies and on 1033 program transfers to
analyze the pattern of MRAP distribution. The results show that MRAPs are dispro-
portionately acquired by agencies that have warrior tendencies and rely on asset
forfeiture to generate revenue. This pattern of militarization is consistent with a
model of governance that views citizens as both opportunities and threats.
militarization, 1033 program, SWAT, asset forfeiture
On August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson, a White police officer, fatally shot Michael
Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, in Ferguson, MO. Initial accounts of the
incident varied. Wilson claimed that Brown reached for the officer’s gun. Many
School of Public Policy, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA
College at Brockport, State University of New York, Brockport, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Brett C. Burkhardt, 300 Bexell Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.
Police Quarterly
2019, Vol. 22(2) 161–191
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611118800780
bystanders claimed that Brown was in retreat, hands in the air. What was
uncontested is that Brown’s body lay in the street for some 4 hours after his
death. Local residents gathered and the level of discontent grew. Thus began 2
weeks of protest, which included property damage and violence. Local police
forces responded to the protests with a show of physical and symbolic strength.
Large, imposing military vehicles arrived. Snipers took positions above crowds.
Officers wearing gas masks and riot gear deployed canisters of tear gas toward
groups of citizens. Armored police with long guns confronted residents
(Institute for Intergovernmental Research, 2015). For many Americans, this
was the first awareness of police militarization: the adoption of military styles,
equipment, and tactics within law enforcement.
Police militarization calls attention to the relationship between police and
civilians (Balko, 2013; Kappeler & Kraska, 2013; Kraska & Cubellis, 1997;
Stoughton, 2016; Wester, 2016). In adopting styles, equipment, and tactics
from the military, domestic law enforcement risk alienating the citizens they
are charged to serve. Public opinion polls reveal that U.S. residents are split
in their perceptions of police militarization. Several national polls conducted
since the events in Ferguson have found that roughly 40% to 50% of Americans
oppose police use of military equipment (Ekins, 2016; Pew Research Center,
2014; YouGov, 2014). Ultimately, demonstrations of military force may con-
tribute to a decline in the perceived legitimacy of local police forces (Bieler,
2016, p. 596; Kochel, 2017; Morin, Parker, Stepler, & Mercer, 2017;
President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015).
This study analyzes militarization as manifest in the federal 1033 program.
The 1033 program transfers surplus military equipment—including weapons,
vehicles, and armor, among other items—to law enforcement agencies (LEAs)
across the country. Since its inception, in 1990, the 1033 program has trans-
ferred over $6 billion worth of equipment from the Department of Defense
(DOD) to more than 8,000 LEAs (Defense Logistics Agency, 2017). Prior to
Ferguson, the 1033 program attracted little attention. Recently, several studies
(reviewed later) have begun to examine the causes and consequences of milita-
rization via 1033.
The present study makes two contributions to this literature. First, it consid-
ers agency-level correlates of police militarization. By merging 1033 acquisition
data with other agency-level data, this analysis offers new insights into the
organizational factors—including budgets, staffing, and missions—that are
associated with militarization. Second, this study focuses on a specific piece of
military equipment: mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles or MRAPs.
As described later, modern MRAPs were developed for and deployed in foreign
counter-insurgency contexts where they were expected to resist attacks by road-
side bombs and permit soldiers to fight their way out of coordinated ambushes.
Unlike other pieces of military equipment (e.g., handguns, rifles, utility trucks),
162 Police Quarterly 22(2)

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