Police versus Prisons

Here’s a remarkable graph from the Council of Economic Advisers report on incarceration and the criminal justice system. The graph shows that the United States employs many more prison guards per-capita than does the rest of the world. Given our prison population that isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that on a per-capita basis we employ 35% fewer police than the world average. That’s crazy.

polce v prison

Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.

We need to change what it means to be “tough on crime.” Instead of longer sentences let’s make “tough on crime” mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.

Increasing the number of police on the street, for example, would increase capture rates and deter crime and by doing so it would also reduce the prison population. Indeed, in a survey of crime and policing that Jon Klick and I wrote in 2010 we found that a cost-benefit analysis would justify doubling the number of police on the street. We based our calculation not only on our own research from Washington DC but also on the research of many other economists which together provide a remarkably consistent estimate that a 10% increase in policing would reduce crime by 3 to 5%. Using our estimates, as well as those of some more recent papers, the Council of Economic Advisers also estimates big benefits (somewhat larger than ours) from an increase in policing. Moreover, what the CEA makes clear is that a dollar spent on policing is more effective at reducing crime than a dollar spent on imprisoning.

Unfortunately, selling the public on more policing is likely to be difficult. Some of the communities most in need of more police are also communities with some of the worst policing problems. We aren’t likely to get more policing until people are convinced that we have better policing. Moreover, people are right to be skeptical because the type of policing that works is not simply boots on the ground. As the CEA report notes:

Model policing tactics are marked by trust, transparency, and collaborations between police and community stakeholders…

Better policing and more policing complement one another. Greater trust can come with body cameras as well as community oversight and other efforts to bring transparency and accountability. Most importantly, the drug war has eroded trust between police and community and that has led to an endogenous equilibrium in which some communities are rife with both drugs and crime. Fortunately, marijuana decriminalization and legalization have begun to move resources away from the war on drugs. Legalization in states like Colorado does not appear to have increased crime and has likely contributed to a dramatic decline of violence in Mexico. As we move resources away from drug crime, police will have more resources to raise the punishment rate for those traditional crimes like murder, robbery and rape that communities everywhere do want punished.

Addendum: See also Peter Orszag’s column on this issue.


The Obama Administration's actions in recent years have certainly infused law-abiding young men with confidence that if they choose a career in police work they won't be turned into a hate object by the federal government and prestige press.


And arm (Fast and Furious) southern border drug armies with military weaponry to kill them.

Do you have evidence to support your conjecture that this is a supply side issue?

Nope, it's about making white people feel victimised by black people, the eternal struggle between the understandable modern desire for victimhood versus the evidence in front of one's eyes.

You miss lynchings, but most people probably don't like the idea of police brutality.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot?

Someone else said it. What I will remember most about the Obama debacle is all the racist healing.

I don't much care for police brutality, but would much rather see sincere attempts to combat it in good faith rather than incite riots for political gain.

I hate to break it to you, but Obama agrees with you.


There is absolutely nothing in that piece that suggests Obama is 1. opposed to inciting riots for political gain or 2. is interested in sincere good faith efforts to do something about it.

What it seems to be is a complaint they won't sit down with him and give him the photo op he wants.

One thing to keep in mind is how little pressure the feds have brought on New York City in all the years of severe NYPD stopping and frisking of blacks and Latinos (which have been enormously successful, as Alex's research would predict -- as Michael Bloomberg liked to boast, he had a 44,000 person private army in the NYPD).

Too many important people live in NYC for the Obama Administration to mess with it much (heck, Obama himself might be living there within a year). It's much smarter for the White House to push around Ferguson, MO, the most important place in the world, than to insist upon civil rights in New York.

I cant tell if you are being sarcastic, but if you are, id simply like to note how very few of the police that are objects of hatred have actually served any jail time, or any real punishment at all after even high profile shootings.

In the case of Darren Wilson the evidence completely exonerated him. He lost his job though although he did exactly what he was supposed to do as a police officer. The media coverage of this case was the height of irresponsibility.

Homicides were up over 16% in the 50 biggest cities in 2015 over 2014:


With much of the increase coming exactly where the feds have been focusing: Baltimore, St. Louis, etc.

"Heckuva job, Holdery!"

But a number of them have had trials. And have been found innocent. A few of them have had the full force of the Fed's Civil Rights industry fall on them. Still found innocent. Darren Wilson being the obvious case.

You might think that merely being the object of hatred does not make someone guilty. Even when nationally famous. Call it the Scotsboro Rule.

I'm not sure how many law-abiding young men who aspire to be police officers see themselves as the type of person who will choose to kill an unarmed citizen, but perhaps those folks should look into other lines of work, such as security services contracting or members of Putin's oprichnik force.

An unarmed man attacking you trying to wrestle your gun away from you? I would hope all police officer candidates would protect themselves.

I suspect it's like malpractice and doctors. Doctors don't see themselves as the kind of person who'd screw up and accidentally kill someone, but they know it happens, and they know those people get ruined. It certainly keeps people out of medicine, and it really keeps people out of certain specialties.

If you are going to bring crap like that, Sailer, at least have the patience to wait and drop it at the end, after on-topic responses.

Steve is bombastic as usual, but he does have a point. If trust and cooperation between police officers and people in the community are important, then having the DOJ launch civil rights investigations of entire police departments every time a black person meets an untimely end at the hands of the police is a great way to undermine that.

I'll be actually surprised if this doesn't become the first step in simply nationalizing the police forces (which likely wouldn't finish under Obama, but our next president... and who, out of the possible candidates, would say no to that, for different reasons?).

Of course, aligning the police and local communities becomes just that much harder, afterward.

One classic method of presidential derangement syndrome is to accuse the president of causing changes he merely reflects. Alex talks about street level distrust. Steve says he blames Obama. Perfect.

As Alex notes, body cameras work bottom up, improving public perceptions and police behavior.

Or make sure that the results clearing the officers are widespread.

The officer in the Ferguson shooting, for example, had the majority of evidence in his favor, according to the DOJ, yet lots of people still think he's a cold-blooded murderer. He had to leave town and leave his line of work.

It seems to be another manifestation of "well, we can't catch many criminals, so let's disproportionately punish the ones that do end up in our crosshairs."

We a good dashcam he'd probably still be working, and the initial narrative would not have caught fire.

This is one of the reasons why police body cams are useful. It's not just about monitoring the police, but getting the truth about what happens in altercations between the police and citizens. I would also guess (though I have no evidenced to back this up) that people would be less willing to attack police officers when they know the encounter is being recorded.

The cameras are necessary because the testimony of cops can't be trusted, yet even when they are caught lying they're never charged with perjury.

I'd say the main two things that have made police abuse more visible, and thus encouraged protests and riots and media circuses around police shootings, are:

a. Cellphone video
b. Youtube

Before cellphone videos, you had allegations of police brutality from unreliable witnesses, but no proof. Now you can have at least strong evidence (the camera isn't showing everything). And before the internet, the local media tended to need to keep on good terms with the local cops, and so the video of the beating might not even make it on the air.

The best thing about the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting was that someone from the outside (the Justice Dept.) did an independent investigation and found that there was no reason to prosecute the cop involved. If we had meaningful independent investigations of police misconduct on a regular basis, we'd address the actual problem (the police can get away with a lot when they end up investigating themselves for any alleged wrongdoing) without needing to have big protests demanding that someone be prosecuted whether or not they did anything wrong.

Also note that dashcams have worked both ways, exonerating citizens and police in turn.

But of course many of the biggest cases like Trayvon and Ferguson didn't have any video. And when all the evidence had been collected, it was pretty obvious there was never much of a case and the national media and Justice Department were just on an anti-white witch hunt, same as the Duke Lacrosse case and countless other hate hoaxes that had petered out.

An unmentioned aspect of the rise of cellphone video and Youtube was the popularity around 2010 of websites like World Star Hip Hop, where blacks posted videos of other blacks behaving badly. This created demand among the prestige press and the White House for a heightened Narrative of Whites Behaving Badly, even if like, say, George Zimmerman, the accused malefactors weren't even white.

How would you have him respond to repeated videos of cops behaving badly? All in a day's work?

I don't know. We would have to wait until we had a case where there was a video of police behaving badly.

We do know how he behaves when policemen and even ordinary citizens go about their lawful business protecting themselves. He insists on injecting himself into the process in order to get law-abiding folk fired or lynched. He did not need to comment on George Zimmerman. But he did. Zimmerman is now living in hiding in part because of that. He did not need to insert himself into the Henry Louis Gates thing either. But he did.

When it comes to law enforcement the best contribution Obama could make is to shut the hell up.

"Chicago Cop in Dash-Cam Video Charged With Murder in Teen's Fatal Shooting"

A cheaper way to get more policing is to get more work out of the current cops you employ. As we've seen twice in NYC, first in the 1960s in a soft strike that went on for decades and practically destroyed NYC, then briefly in late 2014-2015, cops tend to retreat to the donut shop when the politicians like Mayors Lindsay and Di Blasio treat them like racist bad guys.

Same thing happened at the corner of Florence and Normandie in April 1992: the LAPD could have halted the looting of liquor stores by shooting a few criminals, but they'd just been subjected to the Warren Christopher Report about how racist and evil they were, so they backed off and showed they could be sensitive and nonviolent toward blacks.

And a lot of L.A. got burned.

Last year I explained a simple reform that would help cities hire better cops:


Go back to using racial quotas. Hire the top scoring candidates out of each race on the tests.

Instead, many cities now hire by lottery (or clout) from everybody who can pass a test with the passing score set so low that most blacks can pass. A moment's thought will show that this will hire a worse police force than hiring from the top down the best within each race's quota.

I think it would be a winning issue for states and municipalities to shift budgets from firefighters to police officers.


Or, Ray Bradbury was prescient, and the firefighters, having become both redundant and worshiped, are the best candidates to become the police.

Another way of viewing this might be as a police union failure vis-a-vis other unions. In San Diego, where I live, the unions absolutely own the usually democratic city council and, often, the mayor. Not much happens that the unions disfavor, especially spending. Recently the pols have been complaining that the roads here are going to hell because there isn't enough money for regular maintenance.

Last weekend there was a big rally to support a bond issue to build a new football stadium with a cost of 1.8 billion. (The promise is that a hotel tax will eventually cover the cost.) Ladainian Tomlinson, Phil Rivers, Roger Goodell, and the Chargers owner Spanos, who until recently insisted he was moving the team elsewhere, were on hand for the kickoff of the referendum to put it on the ballot.

I think it was the next day that it was announced that a Project Labor Agreement for the stadium building had been reached with the construction unions.

It would be a good idea, but their unions are too powerful. Even Republican governors are afraid of those thugs.

The post seems right to me until you get to the war on drugs part and shifting resources to fight rape and murder etc. The same people selling drugs are also involved in the other stuff. When you take away the police's ability to arrest people for selling drugs, it means there is less chance that rape and murder will be prevented. Broken windows theory is still true...

''The same people selling drugs are also involved in the other stuff.''

People used to be put to death for high way robbery and horse thievery for this reason.

Drug trafficking is no different.

Hence in China and Indonesia. Drug dealers are put to death.

I think that's right. In 19th Century Britain and the US, many crimes had the death penalty. Joseph Conrad may have made an off-hand reference to the widespread imposition of capital punishment in "Heart of Darkness", when Kurtz scribbled in his manuscript "Exterminate all the brutes."

In other jurisdictions, thieves have their hands cut off; rapists and gays are executed; etc.

When the guilty are not punished the innocent suffer.

I dunno, I'm more sympathetic to the idea that a high chance of getting caught, swiftness, and trust between the community and the police are all individually more important than the harshness of punishment, as well as\ (at least in america, where racism is a lingering-to-serious problem) evenness of enforcement. Even if the punishment is death, if 50 to 75% of drug dealers get away with it, people will still continue to push drugs because they've got a decent chance of survival, especially if it's much more lucrative than legal options available.

Worse, the drug war wasn't just drug dealers, it was also on drug consumers- which, I think, was the real issue. Cops would round up local junkies, treat them like shit, hit them with punishments made for the guys actually pushing the stuff, and then declare mission accomplished when most of the people they just arrested weren't the horrible criminals they were targeting.

Which is where community trust comes in; people aren't going to turn over or report criminals (much less support harsh punishments) if the police have a reputation for doing horrible things to anyone they come in contact with and walk around the place like a conquering army (i.e. armed soilders from elsewhere who don't necessarily care about or identify with the people under their authority.) Police need contacts if they're going to find criminals, and getting people to turn on criminals requires they trust the police.

Broken windows policing- and harsh punishments- won't necessarily help the problems caused by low trust. Indeed, if paired with hostile or corrupt policing, they might turn people who otherwise might have opposed the criminals against the police instead!

In general, my point is this- hitting the criminals harder won't do much if they only have a one in 2 chance of getting hit. Plus, community trust is very important because it gets people to turn over criminals, but incompetent or hostile policing will just make non-criminals scared or resentful of the police (for assuming they're criminals wrongly) and hit minor criminals with punishments meant for far worse people.

I don't trust my intuitions here, but my guess is that certainty of punishment and time until punishment are both important--I'd expect that criminals have an unusually short time horizon, so a 30 year sentence may not have any more deterrent effect than a 10 year sentence. (It can still work at incapacitating the prisoners, but for lunkhead violent crime, I think the criminals mostly age out of it anyway.)

There is an interesting paper by Frost/Harpending on the use of capital punishment in England over the centuries. It seems that capital punishment was applied for a very wide spectrum of crimes. In their paper Frost and Harpending examine the possibility that the extensive application of the death penalty over this long period had a significant effect on the genotype of the English population resulting in a more pacified population.

The Chinese population all over the world is notable for low crime rates. The extensive use of the death penalty in China over thousands of years may also have genetically pacified the Chinese population.

Isn't that just a little Lamarckian?

No, it's not Lamarckian at all but selection. Somewhat like the development of dogbreeds or varieties of wheat.

Drugs are only a 'broken window' because we have declared them to be forbidden. The same people who rape and murder also drink alcohol, smoke tobacco and drive cars, and yet we dont believe that those things should be banned simply on the hopes that it will somehow diminish the crimes we care about.

Of course we do. Let's use your car example. The drug dealers on my block are routinely arrested for driving infractions until they leave the neighborhood. I live in San Francisco where drug dealing is basically legal. Drug dealers still shoot at each other though so the police and citizens have to find creative ways to get rid of them.

Is shooting people legal where you live? Why be tricky, simply arrest them for that, rather than trying to impose rules which hurt a great many innocent people in the hopes that it will snare some people who arent innocent?

It's much easier to catch someone for a driving violation witnessed by an officer than for a drug shooting where very frequently because of the "no-snitching" culture any witnesses may be unwilling to cooperate.

It's somewhat similar to the Feds getting Al Capone for tax evasion as oppossed to him being convicted for say the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. No one with any information on this was going to testify in court.

The same people selling untaxed cigarettes, illegal booze, and stolen soap are also involved in other stuff. Simply stated, when something is a crime, mostly criminals will engage in it as long as they can derive a benefit from it. You're begging the question. The fact that criminals are the ones that commit a particular crime is not proof that it should be a crime in the first place.

"The same people selling drugs are also involved in the other stuff'--citation please.

Lumping all crimes together is clearly silly; so we should first be clear what kinds of crimes we intend to prevent.

Crimes within personal relationships, theft for profit, crimes of corrupt government, tax evasion, crimes of public safety...?

We hire so many prison guards because we have so many prisoners not because we choose to hire so many prison guards - it's essentially involuntary. We adopt policies such as mandatory minimum sentences because they are viewed as "free" - it costs nothing to adopt them, unlike (for example) early childhood education programs which are expensive. It's the free lunch approach to government that has been popular since, well, you know. As I have commented before, I worked in my state's legislature when mandatory minimum sentences swept the country (in the 1970s), and it was part of my job at the judiciary committee to estimate the cost of mandatory minimum sentences. All I did was subtract the average sentence before the mandatory minimum sentence from the mandatory minimum being considered and multiply the difference by the per diem cost for an inmate. Of course, the members believed I was uninformed, because they knew, they just knew, that the mandatory minimum sentences would reduce the incidence of crime and thereby reduce the total cost of prisons. And they likely never even heard of Gary Becker. Hiring more police, by comparison, is voluntary, and expensive. If I were still working for the legislature and preparing cost estimates, I would apply the free lunch approach to government by assuming that hiring more police will reduce the incidence of crime to such an extent that it will reduce the total cost of law enforcement. See, tax cuts pay for themselves! And more government spending on law enforcement reduces total government spending! And I never met Gary Becker - though I was a regular reader of his blog.

At a certain point tax cuts do pay for themselves. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laffer_curve . I wouldnt be surprised if at a certain point spending more on police or prison gaurds may reduce overall expenses too. Of course, the role of police and prison guards shouldn't be to lower expenditures for the goverment IMO.

We hire so many prison guards because we have so many prisoners not because we choose to hire so many prison guards – it’s essentially involuntary.

Actually prisons hire so many guards because the ACLU makes them. Texas used to run a very cheap prison system using trustees. With guns even. But the Supreme Court did not like that and so now they don't.

We adopt policies such as mandatory minimum sentences because they are viewed as “free” – it costs nothing to adopt them, unlike (for example) early childhood education programs which are expensive.

No, people adopt them because they work. Unlike early childhood education programs which do not.

Of course, the members believed I was uninformed, because they knew, they just knew, that the mandatory minimum sentences would reduce the incidence of crime and thereby reduce the total cost of prisons.

As has actually happened. Also you are not costing crime. What price preventing a rape? How much does a murder cost? Lowering crime through increased imprisonment does save society as a whole a lot of money. Which is why the voters like it.

Oh, Alex. You sweet, sweet boy.

Should I be the one to tell him about how police unions work? Or does anyone else want to?

If anyone would car to go digging in the original source... is that police count normalized for "totalitatrian-ness?" It seem to be based on data of 200 countries, which includes many violent countries and police states. I wonder if this skews the stats. What is the comparable measure for a country like Canada, the UK and other western democracies? as for the implied causation, what about normalizing for measures associated with high crime rates, such as poverty and income inequality?

Police per capita is actually about average in the US compared to other Western countries.


345 police per 100,000, compared to 222 in Norway. 227 in England and Wales, 356 in France , 465 in Italy and 533 in Spain

Which is why I hypothesize that it isn't necessarily only the police per capita but also the quality of officer that is causing the decrease in crime effect. If you spend more money, you get a more educated (more intelligent?) officer that is maybe better at relating to people in their neighborhood and can handle a larger case load. If anyone can point me to papers on the relationship between officer quality and crime, I'd love to see it. I would be tempted to use officer pay as a proxy for quality, but as someone mentioned above, police unions...

There's also the issue where high IQ is a negative attribute.

Wilson put out a big book on crime a few years ago that has a ton of good data. crime and public policy (2nd edition)

from what i remember the big studies are less on police quality than quality of TYPE of policing. (I think MN has a key study). while earlier studies hadn't found much of a cop crime link more recent ones focusing on best practices have shown good results.

pay as proxy seems like a bad idea given you'd first need to do a COLA

Canada: 202
United States: 352

Compared to our Canadian friends, we are very heavily policed.

Thesis doesn't hold up, Alex.

Here's top cop Bill Bratton explaining the basics of crime rates to a Canadian audience:


The Canadians should be well aware of the fact that different cultures produce different crime rates in liberal democracy, the first nations people in Canada have a very high homicide rates.

Indigenous Canadians comprised 23% of country's murder victims in 2014

The Danish know that too:
The value for Intentional homicides (per 100,000 people) in Greenland was 19.40 as of 2009. As the graph below shows, over the past 14 years this indicator reached a maximum value of 30.20 in 2001 and a minimum value of 3.50 in 2007.

Of course unlike Steve I think this is not only genetics reacting to a particular environment but can change.

Compared to Canada we have population groups such as blacks who are much more highly prone to violence.

"345 police per 100,000, compared to 222 in Norway. 227 in England and Wales, 356 in France , 465 in Italy and 533 in Spain. "

It looks like the more corrupt the country, the more cops.

Which way does the causation go though?

Also thats still a really small sample. I'd be interested to see Russia and China. If you start throwing the somalia's on there its going to drastically change the result

Or subsidies to the tourism industry. France and Spain have largest tourist traffic than inhabitants.

also the term/category "police" is not standardized across nations -- thus, international comparisons are faulty.

The U.S. has large numbers of civilian government personnel with badges/guns/police-authority... who are not formally counted as normal civilian "police". For example, 73 Federal U.S. agencies employ over 120,000 "Police" personnel, including many purely administrative agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The assertion that ".. we spend 35% less on police than the world average" is very incorrect.

They are not called that, but the New York School District is said to employ so many police officers that it would be the fifth biggest police force in America.

Fox Butterfield, is that you?

Alex, How do they measure police spending? Do they include pensions?

Or you can just get the cops to actually work more of their shifts.

In the 1960s the police got the message from the LBJ Administration and the media that they were the bad guys, so they did what they can always do: kill time in the donut shop.

The big breakthrough in restoring NYPD effectiveness under Giuliani / Bratton in NYC in the early 1990s was less all the computer stuff Bratton liked to tell the press about, it was getting the cops out on the streets for most of their shifts. A big part of it was treating them like they're the good guys, not the bad guys.

After the December 2014 murder of two NYPD officers by a black radical, the NYPD carried out a soft mutiny retreated to the donut shop. Homicides briefly spiked. But Mayor De Blasio gave in to his police chief (who happens to be, amazingly enough, Giuliani's old police chief Bratton) and soon the NYPD was back out on the streets.

Clearly these public employee unions need to be broken. I'm all for it.

Model policing tactics are marked by trust, transparency, and collaborations between police and community stakeholders -

In many communities they are on the side of the criminals and gang bangers. Don't snitch etc. Look at young mothers dressing their new born children in gang colors. Look at the funerals that celebrate the gang lifestyle.

In many communities the social norms are so screwed up that collaboration is impossible. This is not just a drug issue.

Without drug money life as a gang member would look much less appealing.

Drug money is the only fat reward. Everything else is a thin margin.

So make all drugs legal?

The social norms, the violence as normal, has tilted perhaps beyond repair. Children who grow up in such a world do not suddenly shift as adults. The notion that the police are the problem in any significant way is crazy.

Chicago has had over 1,000 shootings so far this year. In part because the police have decided to go fetal and surrender the streets to the criminal element. Why, because the police can not operate in an area where the population identifies more with the criminal element then the police. Many communities have accepted violence and a life of crime as acceptable. Gang identification trumps any connection to outside groups.

If the cops started giving out free drugs on street corners. The problems would not be solved.

Legalizing all drugs is scary, luckily someone else is trying it first:

14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here's What Portugal Looks Like

Note that legalization is not the same as "good." Instead drug users are routed to a social/medical system.

I say that drugs alone are not the problem. You want to say that Portugal made drugs legal with minimal problems. I say make the drugs legal, you will still have a culture of violence. Much more violent then Portugal before or after the drug issue.

You talked about persistent gang culture, I added that drug money helps make it so.

If the cops started giving out free drugs on street corners. The problems would not be solved.

I would bet that complete drug l;legalization would reduce crime by more than 30%.

I think Alex is correct that things like body cameras and decriminalization can build trust in police. We should probably medicalize drug abuse, criminalization didn't work.

This post seems to have its causality confused:

High crime rate -> War on drugs
War on drugs -> high crime rate

Thank you gods of formatting.

Poor people are unbanked, police sieze cash as evidence (by itself) of wrongdoing. What could go wrong?

We need to increase the probability of catching those who commit crimes.

Support restoring funding to the



If criminals are deported, neither police nor prisons are needed.

With regard to increasing the number police and social acceptance. I would guess the $ spent one additional police could easly be covered by the $ saved by one prison being closed and the facilities sold. If true then sell the shift to the public would be a clear win-win in bugetary terms I would think; so an easy sell to most.

However, I think the bigger problem is that most people will not want more police -- and I'm not talking about criminals. Most people really don't trust the police to actually engage in good protetion but generally see them as out to get them on something (often rather trivial). Not an unsolveable issue but I do think it points to a larger problem in terms of both how police are trained, the general culter of police and police departments and the relationship between the police and the public. Solve that problem and I suspect it's much easier to sell the idea of more police and fewer prisons.

The problem isn't the number of police, it is the quality and location of the police.

80% of America is over-policed. Pleasant, bored, and spectacularly overpaid cops patrol the streets of suburbia, enjoy good community relations, and deal with a supportive populace.

20% of America is under-policed. Harried, under-paid, possibly crooked cops patrol the streets of the American Bantustans, where they deal with hostile and angry locals who see them as an occupying force.

Any increase in America's police budgets will go towards padding the pensions of the first group and building ever nicer police stations. The high-crime part of America has neither the resources nor culture to build viable policing.

"Pleasant, bored, and spectacularly overpaid cops patrol the streets of suburbia, enjoy good community relations, and deal with a supportive populace."

The police send a car for an hour to every block party in my suburb if requested, which is most of the time. The little kids all sit in the car and even blow the siren. The parents talk to the cops. Smiles and good feelings all around.

Yeah, I can see how we need major reform to get us away from that kind of hellscape, where the cops are part of the community, parents and kids like them, etc.

That's pretty similar to where I live, where the cops are basically EMTs with a sideline in checking up on old retired people. As you might guess, we don't have much crime.

The part of America that does have crime doesn't have the money to pay for cops, and if they had the money to pay for cops doesn't have the culture that could engage meaningfully with them, and even if they tried to change that culture, they don't have the family structure and social capital to do so.

If all Americans were deputized it would virtually eliminate crime.

One problem here is that the costs of imprisonment are paid by the state while most of the costs of policing are paid by the local governments. Thus, local governments have an incentive to incarcerate as many people as possible rather than spend more on policing.

Do police pensions count in the spending per capital on police forces? Otherwise, the comparison is off. For instance, there are countries where army pensions are taken out of the army budget, which crowds out other forms of spending related to the Army's function. If you were to take those out, you'd be moving a burden to another page of the ledger, but freeing up army resources without having to increase the budget. So, does the spending reflect pensions?

Also, the US should not be looking at world average spending on officers, but on Western European averages. Comparing yourself to the world will become an exercise in futility once Africa's population will balloon and make everyone else's stats look good by comparison.

As many who lived in a 1970's college dorm room can tell you it is better live in very stark environment with peace and safety that in a nice home with real danger and strife around. Chicago has war going on in the streets and Government seems unable to bring peace and safety.

Government can punish crime but is less good at preventing crime. Considering the problems inherent in Gov. it might be too much to ask, for them to prevent crime.

I will elaborate a bit. Personality is very important for a good policeman but If you hire police through the civil service exam you will not get enough with the personality traits that you want and, if you let politicians hire and fire at will you end up with patronage jobs.

Here is a related link: http://tomwoods.com/podcast/ep-597-can-the-private-sector-protect-against-crime-this-case-study-will-blow-your-mind/

The principal problem with competitive exams for police officers is that valid tests will result in a political unacceptable racial balance.

The dorm analogy is better than you might think.

I'd rather live with good neighbors and no cops than bad neighbors and many cops. Much of rural America is essentially unpoliced, and many small town police departments close down at night. In some of these places people leave their doors unlocked and the car keys on the dash in case the snowplow driver needs to move it. In other parts, there is nothing but gangs and meth.

Every time a large natural disaster hits and the police force cannot respond, the true nature of a neighborhood comes out.

For the most part, there are parts of America that don't need to be policed, and parts of America that can't be policed. The interesting situations arise in cities where these two Americas rub up against each other.

In the aftermath of the very destructive Kobe earthquakes there was no looting or violence by Japanese people even tthough many areas received no assistance for days. Policing ghetto black communities in the US is a very different thing froim policing many other areas of the world. Many comments here show a high degree of naivety about demographic differences.

Less judges and police but more people incarcerated. Same number of DA's. Leads me to think that overzealous DAs and legal deal making may be the real culprit to our prison issues.

is it possible the data includes some military spending in other countries? My impression is that the military gets more involved in domestic affairs in other nations more often than the US.

For most crimes, doubling the punishing is less effective than doubling the cost of getting caught.

Given that two years in prison costs as much as hiring a single police officer, society would be much better off with a heavy police presence in high crime neighborhoods to act as a deterrence against crime rather than throwing people in jail for decades.

Alternatively, we can lower our conviction standards.

Really really interesting.

One of the difficulties, as I understand it, of ending the war on drugs is that you would have 40% of the police force being "idle" since that's about how much of their energy is used for handling drug related issues. So undoing the war on drugs has been a problem for police unions, because they want to reduce the layoffs. If a bargain could be agreed upon to actually increase the number of officers (or redeploy the drug war police)then that might be a palatable one for the police unions and anti-prohibition people alike. Either way, this reduction in severity model makes a lot of sense, and even as someone who is leery of overpolicing and the civil liberties threats involved with it, if the trust could be genuinely restored in a post-drug war environment, this would be miraculous and, if handled extremely well, at least theoretically plausible.

Start your lobbying, Alex!

Am quite interested in how the election of district attorneys influences this pattern; from what I understand other countries that are comparable in relation to institutions (e.g. Canada, Australia, UK, New Zealand, Hong Kong) appoint their equivalents of district attorneys from the legal profession via different consultative processes. So, in election campaigns, is it more attractive for voters to have a DA being 'tough on crime' or have greater spending on enforcement? In other words, are state voter priorities on preventative action or retribution?
Consider also the incentives for DAs and prosecutors to boost their election credentials via conviction rates, and also that some DAs offer their staff incentives for reaching conviction targets -- and this would include the ability to offer plea bargains to alleged offenders.
Related to this, national-level statistics may not be as useful a comparison as state-level or jurisdictional statistics. For example, incarceration rates in Utah are less than half those in Arizona according to the original report. It also notes that State incarceration rates are positively related to Federal and local inmate populations."
And don't get me wrong, I do think that more policing is an effective deterrent and the CEA report offers some convincing data illustrating the problem, but the incentives to put people in jails (or not) extends beyond policing and enforcement. I am reminded somewhat of the intro to Law and Order: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders..."
Any thoughts? (Not on Law and Order, btw, just the influence of DAs).

So the number of policemen in a police force isn't subject to marginal utility? The 401st cop hired is just as valuable to the community as one of the first five.

I'd like to believe that more police on the streets would help may arrest more certain; yet I also suspect more citizens will be subjected to nickle-dime bullshit like tail lights out etc. As recent history demonstrates these encounters often lead to the death of an unarmed person. The broken window theory has its limits.

As recent history demonstrates these encounters often lead to the death of an unarmed person.

You've a talent for irrational risk assessment.

Right. It would help to have cops on the beat, not driving around, who would make friendly contact with citizens. Protect and serve, not harass and intimidate.

Two things that behaviorists demonstrated, with other animals, anyway:

1. Reward is more effective than punishment.

2. The probability of punishment is more important than the degree of punishment.

Doubling the number of police is a good idea.

Yes, we spend more, but most Country will shoot them, rather than feed them.
I was in Hong Kong during a holdup on the South China Sea.
The argument between Hong Kong, China and Macau regarding jurisdiction
took longer than disposing the case. Obviously China won, and in two weeks
all of the gangsters were shot. Case closed ! There were no lengthy appeals.

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