Sunday, July 17

A trio of economists hit on the basic problem with policing in today's America (UPDATED July 19)

Protestor Ieshia Evans, a practical nurse and mother, is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

The other side of the 'Warrior Cop' debate was spelled out in the most graphic terms when news emerged yesterday that a SWAT rifleman made an incredible shot to take down the Baton Rouge killer, who was clearly planning to kill several more police.
Look up "federalization of police" on any American search engine to find numerous articles warning that the federal government is trying to take over the nation's police forces. But listen to Assistant Economics Professor Liya Palagashvili's recent discussion on the John Batchelor Show,  or read her November 19 article for Real Clear Politics, based on her research with two other economists, to understand that the de facto federalization of America's police forces began decades ago with the War on Drugs and accelerated with the War on Terror.

There was no sinister plot informing this federalization; it was simply the power of market economics at work. To help police forces fight the drug epidemic and violent crime that went with it, the federal government incentivized the state/city police forces to help it fight these wars by giving them money and equipment, helping them set up militarized units, and (from the Real Clear Politics article):
[P]olice departments that cooperate with federal drug investigations receive a share of any associated asset forfeitures. This means that local police are able to generate increases in their budgets by confiscating assets (cash, homes, cars) during the process of investigating drug-related crime. Thus, any department choosing not to place a greater emphasis on drug-related crime forgoes income, regardless of the community's actual public-safety needs.
So while local police forces weren't under any obligation to accept federal funds, it was hard for most to refuse the contributions to their budgets. But gradually -- over a period of 35 years -- the local police forces that accepted the federal funds became financially dependent on them. And with this dependence came a re-prioritization of local policing objectives:
The truth is, it's quite difficult for police departments to build community-police partnerships when the police look like they're about to go to war with the community.
These federally funded initiatives create the reality of the "warrior cop."
Federal programs don't just exacerbate the hostility between communities and the police; they also incentivize the police officers to prioritize federal needs over community needs.
The bottom line is just that: as with any other funding program, if local districts accept the money they have to accept the stipulations that go with the funds. The problem being that the federal government is funding the police to treat national problems (drugs and drug-related crime, terrorist threats, human trafficking, etc.), which ignores the special and often unique policing needs of communities.  

While Palagashvili didn't mention this, of course it was the economic crisis in America that caused local police departments to depend even more on federal funds. So I'm not sure that Palagashvili is right in asserting that local police forces have had a choice about accepting the federal funds, at least not during the past eight years.

But Palagashvili's basic argument -- that it's hard to resist 'free' money -- is correct.  Yet it turned out there is a very high price when police forces accept federal free money. Police forces are becoming aware that they made a Faustian bargain because it's now falling back hard on them. Not all the reasons for this are the fault of the police accepting federal funds:
  • It's been noted many times that society has been shoving all its ills -- homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, extreme poverty, broken homes, etc. -- into the lap of the police. 
  • The police have been caught in a political vise that has seen leftists and anarchists (and black racialist activists) use the police forces as a foil for Protest Theater. 
  • Rapid shifts in population during the past decade from urban to suburban regions that don't have the social service programs characteristic of America's big cities have led to the 'Ferguson Problem.' Bottom line to this problem: most of America's poor now reside in suburbs.   
But all this has converged at a time when the police and communities they serve need to trust each other as never before. Trust is hard when a police force's highest priorities are determined by market forces; in this case, federally-created market forces.

If you'd like to get more background to Liya Palagashvili's very valuable discussion before tackling the academic paper, I'd suggest you read through her short article for Real Clear Politics, which is a layman's introduction to the paper she coauthored with Peter J. Boettke and Jayme Lemke, Re-Evaluating Community Policing in a Polycentric System published in the Journal of Institutional Economics in July 2015. 

And listen to her conversation with John Batchelor -- during which she explains what is meant by a polycentric policing system and outlines suggestions for overcoming the worst consequences of the American drift into de facto federal policing substituting for community policing.

Now what would happen if common sense triumphed and communities accepted the pain of refusing federal funds to prop up the budgets of their police forces? Then we could see a serious push from the federal government and Congress to create a real federalized police force. Thus giving conspiracy theorists the satisfaction of saying, 'I told you so.'  


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