Over the past few months, numerous media outlets propagated the image of U.S. law enforcement officers in military-grade armor, inferring a formidable police presence and sparking national debate. Many departments cite the increasing sophistication of weapons and threats of terrorism as motivation to strengthen their resources.

While U.S. lawmakers and local police departments evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of police militarization, researchers are looking for ways to improve the communication and judgment of officers who face stressful encounters with potentially lethal threats.

Controversy sparked review of military surplus program
According to Officer.com, Attorney General Eric Holder is “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”

With U.S. involvement in major Middle East conflicts coming to a close and shifts in technology continuing to impact manufacturing, the military transferred control of thousands of surplus items—including weapons and armored trucks—to local departments. Since 2001, federal grants for counterterrorism programs in the U.S. have fueled the militarization of law enforcement.

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“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals. We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told The Wall Street Journal.

The goods transferred through the military surplus program increased in value from $1 million in 1990 to nearly $450 million by 2013. According to The Wall Street Journal, the St. Louis area alone received more than $80 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for equipment and training. The so-called 1033 program even allowed law enforcement agencies to obtain the gear at no charge beyond the cost of shipping.

In August, President Barack Obama announced that the federal government would review the military surplus programs currently in place. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chair of the financial and contracting oversight panel within the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, was charged with looking for ways to both reduce the transfer of military equipment and improve the federal management of transfers as they occur.

Former Minnesota and Wisconsin police chief David Couper suggests that the issue with law enforcement militarization is not the equipment but rather the training officers receive at the academy. In many agencies, candidates are introduced to the job in a boot camp atmosphere. This military-style instruction is not conducive to teaching police skills needed for effective law enforcement, which relies on cultivating strong relationships as much as tactical proficiency.

Officers and suspects are safer when they communicate
High-stress situations rely on the effectiveness of commands officers give to citizens to keep everyone safe. Prior research distinguishes eight command types, with each type further differentiated as alpha and beta subtypes. Whereas beta commands are vague, alpha commands are exact and direct.

The scientists from the Force Science Institute research center at Minnesota University at Mankato applied this categorization to commands issued by police, examining qualities of the encounters with suspects such as compliance, latency, violence, and type of crime. Force Science found that in 1,209 out of 1,334 instances of nonviolent encounters (90.6 percent), officers resorted to the direct alpha commands. Almost 70 percent of those commands were interview types (e.g., “What is your name?”). In situations involving assault, police used a higher rate of beta commands (29.5 percent) compared to all other incidents (14.3 percent).

Although exploratory in nature, the FSI findings suggest that training police to be more clear in communication—even under duress—will lead to less violent and more compliant outcomes. By focusing on better communication protocols, law enforcement agencies could produce officers who are better able to resolve tense situations before use of force is necessitated.

Another factor that affects the outcome of encounters with police is the suspects’ own behaviors. In February 2008, Thomas Aveni, a former firearms trainer who currently heads The Police Policy Studies Council, conducted a study to gauge officers’ reactions to unarmed suspects. For his study, Aveni used a group of actors from a local theater—representing a range of races, genders, ages and attire—to re-enact specific felonious crimes in progress (robbery, burglary, and mugging) designed to appear ambiguous. Researchers generated 80 different scenarios that varied the motions, actors and outcomes, ranging from empty-handed surrender to a perpetrator intending to shoot. The results of the study led Aveni to conclude that age and attire played a larger role in officers’ decisions to shoot than other factors, such as ethnicity.

“That is the bottom-line finding,” Aveni told PoliceOne.com, “If you confront a police officer in what appears to be a felonious context, it is the way you act that will get you shot—not your race. And that is true regardless of the officer’s sex, age, experience, or type of duty location.”

Equipping local police with military-grade gear is a byproduct of financial necessity and escalating dangers to law enforcement officers trying to do their job. To keep everyone safe, however, officers are best equipped with the tools of communication needed to make sure their instructions are clear and effective, regardless of how stressful a situation becomes. Because citizens receive no such training, it falls on police officers to not only be prepared for an encounter to escalate to violence, but also to be able to subdue a volatile suspect without using force.

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