Defunding Police or Upfunding: Better Hiring and Accountability Needs Money

Policing has been a large issue forever and has recently peaked in controversy, as it does every quarter-century or so. The other side we’ve heard is about about unleashing the police to do their job, and it often sweeps gross injustice under the rug. But there is a third side, important because the protests are being followed by policy pursuits, and the reform arguments appear underinformed.

The nation may not have enough potential applicants for careers as front-line cops:

— College graduates make better cops and agencies used to seek them out, but fewer agencies require college any more, which hints that too few graduates are applying.

— Job protection, as in tenure, may improve recruitment. If we change firing to make it easy, we have to give candidates something else to attract recruits.

— Unions, who get blamed for forcing contracts onto governments, are likely giving something governments want. Knowing there’s a union to protect the promises in the contract helps recruitment.

— More accountability is needed, but then potential cops apply where they can stay a while without being bothered. That means that attracting applicants where accountability is high may require pay raises beyond mere cost-of-living increases. But so many taxpayers object that many governments refuse to put up the money.

Removing duties from the police is getting good thought:

— Social workers can resolve some conflicts. But it’ll be rare for a 911 dispatcher, who just hears a complaint, to be sure that only social workers are needed. More likely is that the police will have to accompany the social workers. That will likely become official doctrine and 911 dispatchers won’t have much discretion. Since social workers are often effective precisely because they are not the police, being accompanied by the police will reduce their effectiveness. And a social worker’s first task on the scene will be to disarm followed by an arrest for weapon possession, with little time for building rapport, so they probably don’t apply the skills we think a social worker would have. It’ll be police work with little difference in risks.

— Fewer laws that the police enforce is one way to reduce policing, but substantive repeals probably won’t have much public support and, to my knowledge, the only recent major instance of that is marijuana legalization. We do repeal laws but not usually the ones street police enforce. If it is one such, probably in a year the new enforcement level stabilizes, which ends that argument.

— Strategies for more effective policing tend to require not reducing the number of police. Decades ago in New York City, the police force was much smaller as a percentage of the population, but I think there were more reports of police brutality, unlawful beatings, back then. A larger force makes outnumbering an adversary easier and being deathly afraid of an adversary less likely, and that’s safer for everyone. It means more arrests but fewer beatings and deaths in doing them. But more cops cost more money.

— The IRS reduced heavy enforcement during Bill Clinton’s Presidential years. It didn’t work. Violations went up. Enforcement came back in a couple of years or so.

Strategies raise issues:

— Major crimes are usually denied by all the suspects, but someone did it. Usually, there are clues but not certainty. When investigating, the police should not, and do not, have to telegraph why they are asking a given question of a given person. The police have to ask questions and try to catch someone off-guard so they don’t lie. The society gives the police concepts of “person of interest”, “suspect”, and “probable cause” because having to prove guilt even before an arrest is going to make crime too easy to commit, the larger society wants crime stopped, and certain people (the police) are designated and trained to use those permissions to find who should be arrested. Therefore, they will ask more innocent people than guilty people about whodunit. The only solution is to build goodwill so the police can spend some of it on uncomfortable questioning and have credibility left over.

— If they are arresting a suspect who denies the crime, they do not have to believe the denial if ground to arrest is otherwise present. The denial has to be credible and often it may not be. That confuses people who think that refusal to be arrested is their legal right. At least one high-profile case of a killing of someone who denied wrongdoing was a case of excessive, maybe criminally excessive, police response because what the person allegedly did was illegal but not enough to justify what the police did, but the case was not one of police response that was to a random person whom the police should have known did nothing wrong. Several recent major cases are like that.

— The Supreme Court has approved having tougher law enforcement standards in higher-crime neighborhoods (the case is Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, decided 5–4 in ), so that the same police officer can consider someone running from the police merely on sight alone as subject to tighter enforcement in some communities, which tend to be of color and poorer, but in upscale neighborhoods in the same city, which tend to be white, it’s not allowed. If this is discriminatory, the Supreme Court decided the law allows it. Quoting the court, this is based on a “high crime area” and “reasonable suspicion” (not just a “hunch” but less than probable cause) and considered “unprovoked flight upon noticing the police”. This can probably be reversed by statute, or even by orders from mayors to police chiefs, but then we could have either light enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods or heavy enforcement in affluent neighborhoods against affluent people. The first is unlikely to be popular when crime among poor people gets even worse and spreads out to middle-income neighbors. Heavy enforcement against affluent people jogging to condos will have the predictable political outcome. The differentiation is supported. It allows concentrating the fight where the problem is. The police are widely authorized and expected to apply the differentiation because the public wants the police to solve and prevent crime wherever it happens and doesn’t know a better way. But, to the person in the poor community who gets stopped and questioned and maybe frisked every few weeks, it looks like a police problem.

— Detectives’ investigations must be more thorough, so innocent people who can’t afford more than an under-resourced public defender don’t get hauled into prison and factually guilty people don’t literally get away with murder and, then, having gotten away with it once, be likelier to commit another. But more thorough investigations usually cost more money. A radio report of a post-conviction review included that DNA testing on a cinder block used to murder someone, to see if the convicted person handled it, would cost $36,000. (It was tested and it wasn’t his DNA.) I don’t know what it would have cost in inflation-adjusted dollars back when the police were first investigating the crime; because technology costs tend to slope down over time, it may not have been cheaper long ago. If that kind of money has to come from the police budget, something else gets cut and we’re right back at square one. Affording more investigation per case requires a bigger police budget. Taxpayers will object to more than a gradual increase, so shoddy investigations will continue for a while unless taxpayers are convinced to pay up.

— The larger society wants success in everything. In this case, the public wants to know: Was crime reduced? That’s about the recent past, and it’s generally agreed that the answer is yes. That’s success. That means that whatever strategy and whichever people did it are what the public will praise. Reformers have to either show that the baseline is wrong, because crime has not come down as much, or accept the baseline and build for even greater success through their new strategy and new people. It’s not enough to say that we’ll arrest the bad apples. Crime overall has to be as low as before and it should be lower, or the public will not find much reason to keep a new way of policing.

Accountability has to apply to police officers and executives. Without accountability of officers, accountability for police executives is too limited. Without accountability of the whole agency, accountability of the politicians in charge is too limited. The community usually has no comparison (you can compare two grocery stores but not two local police departments if there’s only one) and so the status quo continues. That’s another reason why cops should be accountable: not only do police–community interactions improve, but also the benefits rise through the ranks and into civilian and elected leadership and legislators, reporters, and voters are better informed.

We have to figure out how to lower crime and have good procedural law for adjudicating guilt or innocence. Some antipolice advocates are trying to protect their hustles and hustles in their communities and some hustles are about can deposits, but some hustles are serious business that demand arrests and good job opportunities instead. We need to discuss K–12 education failures that need upfunding with better accountability for badly-run schools. Some crimes are fairly complex; if people are flunking out of school and committing complex crimes, maybe they have intelligence that is not tapped by schools and the above-ground economy. We need to discuss boosting entrepreneurship in low-income communities, by teaching multiple skills. We need to improve employability and employment. But any of that will take years, maybe a decade or two, to bear economic fruit. That’s too long to make crime drop anytime soon without policing.

Upfunding is needed, for education and for policing. Defunding is the opposite of the answer. Upfunding is what can pay for better hiring, better accountability, and better strategy. Some amounts can be buried in a budget but some can’t be hidden. Taxpayers, enough of them, need to be persuaded to join the cause.

Mayors emphasizing anticrime platforms don’t all increase paychecks enough to attract more people into police careers, relying instead on reduced accountability, larger forces, and shifting strategies. Many taxpayers are both anticrime and antitax.

Presenting this discussion for a national public is a challenge. We’ve already heard on-duty officers sketching their side, but hardly any will say out loud the details of why they do what they do, even when they’re doing no wrong, because they don’t want to risk publicly teaching details that help people commit crimes, helping suspects game the system, or making statements from which defense attorneys can make hay through impeachment in court, causing cops to lose jury cases.

We need retired officers, retired prosecutors, retired police executives, and retired mayors to tell much more than active-duty people will dare to say. Knowledge from more angles is vital.

The timing right now is difficult. But before reform must come the taking of many views into account, including that much of the base that wants reform of the police also wants to be safe through policing. Some say they don’t need the police; they’re usually teens and young adults who believe they can take care of themselves; but their numbers are not enough for abolishment and they’ll have to compromise or be left out. Everyone has to get the picture eventually.

Lately, the argument for defunding has largely disappeared from public discourse. Some prosecutors popularly elected to reduce prosecutions of minor crimes have lost their offices. But no argument for upfunding has come forward. It’s overdue.