Does your city need to save millions in tax expenditure? Here is one simple, cost-saving solution: fire the police.
It sounds radical, because it is. I’m not advocating the complete removal of the police in your community. I am suggesting that huge amounts of money could be saved by removing what most people think of when they think of “the police,” the patrol cop. This is not an “I hate cops” rant. I’ve never been arrested and never gotten more than a minor traffic ticket in 35 years of driving. This is a logical, economic-driven solution. It’s about saving tax dollars without increasing crime.
Constables on Patrol (cops)
No other job except police includes the need to drive around looking for work. None of the other tax-provided services work this way. Firefighters and paramedics don’t scourer the city streets looking for emergencies. They wait until they are called. This can work just as well for police.
Why do police patrol? The most basic reason is, because it’s always been done this way and no one has taken much time to consider if it’s effective. Prior to the automobile, foot patrols were very necessary, otherwise, cops might as well be 100 miles away. With automobiles, having a cop in the station house is just as close as having one on foot 10 blocks away.
Patrolling is commonly dressed up as community involvement, a crime deterrent, or reduction in response time, but none of these are worth the money required to keep cops roaming the streets. They aren’t even valid reasons for patrolling. Studies, like the famous Kansas City Patrol Experiment, conclude that regular police patrols have no effect on crime or citizen satisfaction with their police. They also don’t decrease response times because most calls for service never involve only the closest officer. By policy, many situations require the officer to wait for back-up which negates the response-time argument.
The need for community involvement spawns more serious questions. Why does the community need better relations with the police? Police, like their fire and EMS counterparts, provide a service. Why are public relations a concern? When is the last time paramedics came to your house just to chat and see how you’re doing? Beyond the guy soliciting donations for the volunteer fire department, do firefighters ever drive around to simply show a presence or impress our youth? What is the mysterious relationship police departments are trying to foster? Community relations is really a euphemism for “damage control”. The damaged caused by the increasing, militaristic behavior of police and the natural backlash of the community’s declining respect for police can be better addressed in more economical ways.
What about traffic enforcement?
Won’t our streets turn into a bastardized, full-contact, demolition derby without cops on the streets? Nope. Most people obey traffic rules out of respect and safety. Few start their cars and think, “I’d better not speed because I could get a ticket” or “I wonder what I can get away with today.” The overwhelming majority of drivers are safe, courteous, and sensible. The few that aren’t are not weeded out by issuing the rest tickets.
In 2005, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in response to rampant police corruption especially traffic stop shakedowns, fired the country’s 30,000 police officers. In the months it took to replace the old guard, there was no appreciable increase in crime, either violent or non-violent. There was no change in the number of traffic accidents. As President Saakashvili put it, crime actually decreased.
But I think that the overall picture of crime has decreased. The old police used to beat up people. They basically used what amounted to torture to extort the evidence. And the new police force was educated and is controlled in a way where nothing like this–there is zero tolerance towards torture. Zero tolerance. Everybody thought that there was no way to keep crimes checked unless you occasionally beat them up or managed them with beating them up or blackmail them into something. No, our examples show that you can reverse the crime trend even by being civilized.
Kill the self-feeding monster.
As with most things in life, little things grow to be big things, then giant things, then the unavoidable, mindless apparatus that most government is. Take traffic laws. We codify the reasonable things most people are doing anyway (e.g. slowing down or stopping at intersections, following color-coded traffic signals, stopping for pedestrians, etc.) Now that these are laws, we tell our police they must enforce the rules by ticketing or arresting those who break the rules. The city government now needs to hire more officers to enforce the laws. How to pay for the additional police needed? Collect fines from the rule-breakers, of course. Now we have hundreds of city employees and thousands of dollars and other resources dedicated solely to traffic law enforcement, fine collection, and an entire court set aside just for traffic violations. Throw in the natural need to defend one’s job and the status quo, and we have created the proverbial snake eating its tail. If we could do away with the cost of all that enforcement and collections, the cost of the additional police would evaporate, and the number of traffic accidents would remain unchanged. For even a moderately-sized city, that would free up thousands of dollars, money for things like road improvements that reduce accidents. Missing from the list of things that reduce traffic accidents is “increased police presence.”
The rules police enforce were designed to make people safer, but is anyone safer because of enforcement? The rules came from the fact that most people were doing those things in the first place, without anyone looking over their shoulder for red-and-blues. It’s unclear how police on every corner, collecting money from motorist, makes my daily commute safer. Most days, I don’t see a cop and I still don’t speed or run red lights. I, like most, follow the rules of the road in a very non-altruistic need to remain safe. I expect others to do the same. Before you know it, we have a community working together so everyone gets where they’re going safely without anyone making us wait precariously on the shoulder for some useless paperwork while other cars whiz past at 100 kph.
Safer for cops
Contrary to what most police tell you, being a cop is not the most dangerous job in the world. Cop doesn’t even make the top 10. But when cops are hurt, the main cause is traffic accidents. A little math tells us that minimizing their exposure to traffic would reduce police injury rates by almost 40%. We spend millions of dollars on bullet-proof vests and other equipment to protect officers, but we still send them out in the middle of their most dangerous predator, the automobile. Additionally, we tell them, they need to park their cars on the shoulder, precariously close to high-speed traffic, and distract themselves with document collection and form completion. The side of an interstate highway is hardly a conducive spot for office work.
Additionally, when city’s budgets require austerity, they typically eliminate police partnerships, sending most cops out on patrol alone. If police are held in reserve until dispatched, they can be dispatched in numbers required to deal with the call. No longer would cops be left alone in situations that have the most potential to cause harm. Single-officer traffic stops are the primary source of injury from both agitated motorist and traffic accidents. Taking the patrol officer off the road will eliminate their exposure to this potential harm.
What exactly do cops do?
It is the rare exception that police are in the position to prevent a crime from happening. When it does happen, it makes headlines exactly because it is the exception to the rule. The bulk of police work is post-crime. Investigations, interviews, evidence gathering, prosecution, and paperwork make up the majority of policing. Imagine how many crimes could be solved by reallocating the roving officers to these duties. But if money is to be saved, imagine how things would remain unchanged if the police department consisted of only the investigative wing.
We’ve come to believe police have special powers, but in most states, any citizen has almost all the same powers a cops has. Police simply have cute uniforms, shiny badges, government-issued guns, and special immunity. It’s that immunity that is the rub. Immunity fosters no accountability. Private security can and does offer all, if not more, of the protection the police provide. Plus, they are accountable for their behavior. If the police beat a suspect, they answer to only themselves via internal affairs. If a security guard beats someone, they answer to their employer and the courts. That puts a new spin on “justifiable force.” A private company or employee has a direct incentive in the form of a contract or paycheck to do their job. Police, on the other hand, are notoriously difficult to fire even in cases of extreme negligence. Try telling a cop, “I pay your salary,” and see what reaction you get. Now tell your private security guard that same thing and see if their job performance doesn’t improve. (See how Threat Management is effectively addressing the crumbling police infrastructure in Detroit.)
Technological innovations offer other cost-effective alternatives. I’m not talking about traffic cameras that mail out anonymous tickets, either. Those have serious 6th Amendment issues. Nor am I suggesting we employ a fleet of drones and CCTV cameras to monitor every nook and cranny of our towns. Those have serious privacy and other Constitutional hills to climb. I am suggesting we get our laws around our technologies and employ them in a safe, sane way to improve our lives. But in all honesty, being in public is just that. In today’s camera-laden world, you must expect that if you pick your nose at a red light today, it will be on Youtube tomorrow. The great thing about technology is a definite price tag comes attached. Hiring a city employee comes with all sorts of long-term, unadvertised costs. Buying a camera is a clear red-ink item on the city budget. You know exactly what you’re getting and how much it costs. Your town is also in less danger of running out of money in 20 years because some retirement investment went belly-up.
This is madness!
If cities really want to save money and spend their collected taxes wisely, rethinking how we police is long overdue. We are operating on 19th century policing principles well into the 21st century. It’s time to redefine why we have police and how they effectively manage crime. Reallocating or eliminating patrols has proven to have no effect on the crime rate. Why not take this to its logical conclusion? The first step is an honest evaluation of what police in our society really do and should do. It requires we drop any sentimental feelings we have for a uniform and honestly examine the mission of our police departments. If we want them to be self-feeding, collection agencies with little accountability, we can proceed with the status quo. If we want them to be effective crime* prosecution forces, it’s time to reorganize exactly what they do, how they do it, and how we pay for it.
*Crime here is defined as acts that cause harm to another person or another person’s property. This definition does not include the prosecution of actions that don’t involve harm to others. If cities need to raise revenue from people’s personal choices, they should tax those activities instead of criminalizing them.