Why poor neighborhoods don't get the policing they want
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The tension between law enforcement authorities and civilians seems to be continually increasing. Hardly a day goes by when we do not hear about about either a police officer either shooting or being shot by one of the people they are charged with protecting. Why have things gotten so bad, and is there a way to make them better?

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In a recent, very thoughtful editorial, author and ex-police officer James Nolan takes a hard look at the violent confrontations between police and residents in poor neighborhoods. "Rather than focus on the characteristics of 'bad apple' police officers or angry, revengeful citizens," he writes, "sociologists like me tend to look at the context in which the violence occurs or at how individuals within this context interact." That's certainly a more intelligent way of examining the problem than the reflexive "pro-cop/anti-cop" position we more usually see.

But I'm not a sociologist. My training is in economics, and economists look at one thing above all others: incentives.

Nolan rightly points out that the modern American police system rewards officers for the wrong things, including number of arrests made and the amount of contraband seized. Their training also encourages viewing residents as potential threats rather than as members of the community, and this tends to foster an adversarial relationship with locals.

Furthermore, the consequences of bad behavior by police are usually close to zero. Except in the rare case of a high-profile shooting, instances of abuse of police power are generally dismissed or swept under the rug. In poor neighborhoods particularly, where the residents have little media access or political power, there is not much to keep an officer of the law on his or her best behavior. The incentives are wrong, and so we get bad outcomes.

So how do we correct bad incentives? Nolan proposes a number of political reforms and an overall change in attitude among police departments, which certainly couldn't hurt, but I think he misses the broader problem, and with it, a potential solution. Customer service breaks down when the person paying for the service is not the same person who receives it. If the service is unsatisfactory, the customer needs to be able to punish the producer in some way, and the most effective way to do that is by withholding his money. Fear of losing this money is what keeps companies honest. They have to please their customers, or else risk losing them.

With government services, police included, payment is unconditional. We have to pay taxes whether we want to or not, and individuals have no practical way of determining how their tax dollars are spent. Whether a community loves their local police officers, or whether they hate and fear them, makes no difference from the perspective of the department. They get paid the same either way. You can enact all the police reform you want, but as long as customers can't take their business elsewhere, these services will always tend towards inefficiency and unaccountability.

This observation leads to what many will view as a radical conclusion: What if people were able to purchase police services the way they purchase almost everything else? What if you could hire a security firm to police your neighborhood, reserving the option to fire them if they do a bad job?

In fact, you already can do this. Private security firms are a booming business, and you rarely hear about them shooting their customers or their pets — they can't afford to make such mistakes. Neither do people go around shooting the guards they have hired. But the existence of these companies doesn't solve much as long as they have to compete with a government police force that can effectively self-fund through taxation.

It will be objected that the poor neighborhoods, the ones which tend to have the worst problems with police, will be unable to pay for protection, because after all, they are poor. This overlooks the fact that they already pay for protection in the form of taxes (even people below the poverty line pay taxes in the form of higher prices for goods and services) and that a private protection force subject to competition would necessarily be most cost-efficient than government police. The money saved by not being forced to pay for adversarial and ineffective policing should be plenty to pay for responsible, customer-focused private policing.

The idea of private provision of services law enforcement services is not unprecedented. The first public police force in London did not appear until 1829, before which most policing was handled by private individuals and volunteers, and the U.S. has a long history of companies employing private police in such forms as security guards, railroad police and hotel detectives. The world is more sophisticated now, with more sophisticated criminals, but the sophistication of private security firms has increased to match.

The idea of a privatized police force will be a tough sell to many people, who will immediately imagine mafia types demanding "protection money" from unwilling clients. But bear in mind that the status quo demands taxes from unwilling communities, while a privatized force would at least give citizens the option to shop around for a more honest and responsible company.

Given the utter failure of inner-city policing in America today, we should at least have an open mind about pursuing alternative models. As long as payment is divorced from quality of service, I fear that poor neighborhoods will remain havens of violence and corruption.

Albright is the director of research for Free the People, an organization that promotes personal freedom and economic liberty.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.