Public Opinion About Police Weapons and Equipment: An Exploratory Analysis

AuthorKevin H. Wozniak,Kevin M. Drakulich,Brian R. Calfano
Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/08874034211005005
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/08874034211005005
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(9) 960 –991
© The Author(s) 2021
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DOI: 10.1177/08874034211005005
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Article
Public Opinion About Police
Weapons and Equipment:
An Exploratory Analysis
Kevin H. Wozniak1, Kevin M. Drakulich2,
and Brian R. Calfano3
Abstract
Despite debates about the “material militarization” of the police, relatively little
information on mass public opinion about police weapons, equipment, and gear
currently exists. We analyze data from a national, opt-in panel of survey participants
to assess public opinion regarding police use of 10 different types of weapons and
equipment for use in confrontations with citizens. We find that public opinion
defies easy classification into “militarized” versus “routine” equipment categories.
Multivariate analyses indicate that perceptions of (a) police efficacy and (b) the
frequency with which officers experience physical assaults on the job are the most
consistent predictors of support for a range of weapons and gear, whereas perceptions
of police misconduct and bias predict opposition to some types of tools. Partisan
differences in attitudes between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are less
consistent predictors than broader perceptions about policing, but the effects of
partisanship that are evident are substantively large.
Keywords
public opinion, police, militarization, weapons, politics
Introduction
Beginning in 2014, the practices of police in the United States came under intense
public scrutiny following a series of deaths of Black American men and women dur-
ing encounters with law enforcement that received nationwide news coverage. The
1University of Massachusetts Boston, USA
2Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA
3University of Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kevin H. Wozniak, University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 William T. Morrissey Blvd., Boston,
MA 02125, USA.
Email: kevin.wozniak@umb.edu
1005005CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211005005Criminal Justice Policy ReviewWozniak et al.
research-article2021
Wozniak et al. 961
killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore,
Maryland, each sparked weeks of mass public protests (Cobbina, 2019; Lowery,
2016). In 2020, additional killings, such as those of Breonna Taylor in Louisville,
Kentucky and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, caused a new, sustained
wave of protests that was called the largest public protest movement in American his-
tory (Buchanan et al., 2020; Haines, 2020; Hill et al., 2020). These 21st-century pro-
tests were merely the latest in a long history of conflicts between police forces and
communities of color that includes other infamous incidents such as the 1992 Los
Angeles riots and the numerous urban uprisings that occurred during the “long, hot
summers” of the late 1960s (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders &
Kerner, 1968).
Conflicts between civilian protesters and police forces revitalized a debate about
whether police forces in America have become inappropriately “militarized.” This
particular debate rose to public salience in the 21st century following coverage of the
Ferguson protests by both journalists and smartphone-equipped civilians who posted
photos and video on social media. The coverage documented members of the Ferguson
police force clad in full riot gear, confronting unarmed civilians with guns drawn
(often rifles or machine guns), sometimes from atop armored vehicles. Walter Olson
(2014) of the Cato Institute commented, “The dominant visual aspect of the story . . .
has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who
are seen waving signs or just their hands.” Police violence against civilians resumed
en mass during the 2020 protests (Berman & Wax-Thibodeaux, 2020), leading Senator
Rand Paul (2020) to editorialize,
In a free society, citizens should be able to easily distinguish between civilian law
enforcement tasked with keeping the peace in our communities and the armed forces
tasked with protecting our country from foreign adversaries. Unfortunately, thanks to the
federal government flooding our neighborhoods with billions of dollars of military
equipment and property over the years, the line between peace officer and soldier of war
has become increasingly blurry.
Kraska (2007) argued that militarization involves police officers adhering to the
belief that coercive force is an appropriate means to solve social problems, as well as
efforts by police forces to pattern themselves after the military in regard to training,
tactics, arms, and equipment (see also Simckes et al., 2019).1 Many police forces
began the process of militarization decades ago, most notably through the increased
use of Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) teams to wage the “war on drugs”
(Balko, 2013; Farmer et al., 2019; Hinton, 2016; Kraska & Cubellis, 1997; Kraska &
Kappeler, 1997). The creep of militarization received a significant boost following the
enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997. This law established the
1033 Program through which police departments could procure surplus equipment
from the U.S. military (Burkhardt & Baker, 2019; Koslicki & Willits, 2018; Phillips,
2016; Ramey & Steidley, 2018). Radil et al. (2017) report that more than 80% of U.S.
counties had received equipment through the 1033 Program by the year 2013. This
962 Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(9)
included weapons and tools that critics allege are more appropriate for a war zone,
such as machine guns and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. Police use of
such equipment raises particularly stark questions about civil liberties when officers
deploy them to manage mass protests rather than hostage situations (Maguire, 2015).
A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that police militarization has little
effect on crime rates and may generate negative collateral consequences (Gunderson
et al., 2019; Insler et al., 2019; Lawson, 2019; Masera, 2019; Mummolo, 2018).
Following the Ferguson protests, Members of Congress held committee hearings to
debate police officers’ use of surplus military equipment (Bowman, 2014). Although
legislative efforts to reform police militarization failed (Turner & Fox, 2019), President
Obama issued an executive order curtailing the scope of the 1033 Program on the
recommendation of his President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015).
However, at the behest of some police groups who formed a key part of his electoral
coalition (Zoorob, 2019), President Trump reversed Obama’s executive order in 2017.
The 2020 protests once again put police use of military gear under the spotlight
(Penzenstadler & Chen, 2020). The U.S. Senate initially rejected a broad ban on equip-
ment transfers and chose instead to only partially restore some of the Obama restric-
tions that were undone by Trump (Edmondson, 2020). In light of Congressional
gridlock, several state legislatures considered imposing their own restrictions (Fuller,
2020). In the last days of the Trump Administration, Congress did restrict the transfer
of bayonets, grenades, combat vehicles, and weaponized drones and implemented a
new requirement for law enforcement agencies that receive 1033 equipment to certify
that their police officers receive annual training focused on de-escalation tactics and
civilians’ constitutional civil liberties. These limited changes to the 1033 program
were enacted through an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act
sponsored by Democratic Senator Brian Schatz (Hager & Eads, 2021). All told, the
militarization of police, and particularly police officers’ use of military equipment and
weapons when interacting with civilians, has been a source of disagreement among
law enforcement and political elites for several years (Turner & Fox, 2019).
Surprisingly, though, we know far less about mass public opinion about police weap-
ons, gear, and equipment.
Public attitudes toward police militarization could matter in two ways. First, public
opinion constrains and shapes policymaking in democracies, and criminal justice pol-
icy is no exception (Canes-Wrone et al., 2011; Enns, 2016). Second, as other scholars
have argued (Moule, Burruss, et al., 2019; Moule, Fox, & Parry, 2019; Moule, Parry,
& Fox, 2019; Tyler, 2006), police legitimacy depends upon a reservoir of goodwill
among the public. If the public perceives the police to be acting in an inappropriate
manner, they are less likely to call upon the police for aid or cooperate with the police
in the exercise of social control (Brunson, 2007; Carr et al., 2007; Desmond et al.,
2016). If citizens perceive that police officers equipped with surplus military weapons
and tools are hostile warriors rather than community guardians, such beliefs may have
a delegitimizing effect.
In this study, we sought to assess public opinion about the range of equipment that
police officers employ. We surveyed the opinions of respondents to an opt-in survey

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