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The Limits of Police Reform

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The Limits of Police Reform

The Wall Street Journal June 12, 2020
Urban PolicyCrimePublic Sector Reform
Policing & Public SafetyAll

The data caution against expecting too much, and radical changes could have harmful consequences.

George Floyd’s senseless death under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin has prompted conversations about how to reduce police use-of-force. Proposals run the gamut from abolishing qualified immunity and investing in de-escalation training, to reducing militarization and defunding the police altogether. It’s an important discussion, but one that requires tempered expectations—not because police are impervious to policy interventions, but because many popular reform proposals suffer from two practical limits.

The first is an inflated sense of how widespread police violence is. The second is that the data caution against expecting too much from reforms and warn that more-radical ones could have bad consequences.

Police use of force declined sharply over the past 50 years. In 1971 the New York City Police Department reported 810 firearms discharges by officers, which wounded 220 people and killed 93. In 2016 those numbers were down to 72 shootings, 23 wounded and nine killed. The rhetoric of protesters doesn’t acknowledge any of that progress.

In some cases the police use force negligently or malevolently. But the infrequency with which they use force at all suggests less room for improvement than many police critics imagine. Nationally, police discharged their firearms an estimated 3,043 times in 2018, resulting in 992 deaths. The same year, nearly 700,000 full-time officers made more than 10 million arrests. A 2018 study, published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, analyzed more than 100,000 arrests. It found that more than 99% were carried out without the use of physical force. In the cases when force was used, 98% of subjects sustained mild or no injury.

Police aren’t perfect, and even their staunchest defenders must acknowledge that some officers have taken one too many sips from the fountain of power that is a government-issued badge and gun. The question is what to do about it. A look at some of the available research suggests the impact of many popular reform proposals may be marginal. They may still be worth implementing, but these problems have no easy answers.

Take qualified immunity. This is the controversial doctrine that protects officers (and other government employees) from civil liability when their actions violate a right that was not at the time “clearly established”—say, by another case with similar facts. Many have argued that the doctrine undermines police accountability and encourages bad behavior. 

But it isn’t successfully invoked that often. A 2017 study published in the Yale Law Journal analyzed nearly 1,000 cases in which the defense could be asserted. Only 3.9% of them were dismissed on immunity grounds. A databaseof lawsuits filed against police in New York City shows that of 2,387 documented cases, only 74 were resolved in favor of the defendants.

Also popular are calls to “demilitarize” police and prioritize de-escalation tactics. Here again, the research doesn’t support high expectations. Rigorous empirical assessments, including a 2017 study by University of Tennessee researchers published in the American Economic Journal, of the effects of acquiring military surplus equipment have found that the impact of such acquisitions on deadly force is null. Further, it tends to reduce citizen complaints and deter crime. A substantial literature on the effects of de-escalation and crisis-intervention training also shows little effect.

As for the more radical proposals like defunding police, consider that between May 29 and 31, while police were occupied with quelling violent protests, Chicago saw its most violent weekend of the year, with 84 people shot and 23 murdered. That Sunday was the city’s most violent day since 1961. Betting that this is mere coincidence strains credulity and runs counter to a body of literature showing that when police activity is curtailed, crime goes up. Other research shows that the mere presence of police can reduce crime, and that quicker response times can increase clearance rates. Cutting police resources would only diminish the ability of police to have these effects.

A more promising idea is to limit the power of police unions, whose contracts make it difficult to fire bad officers. It’s a reasonable conjecture that removing bad cops from the force would prevent their bad behavior from escalating, and making it easier to meet clear misconduct with discipline would improve public perception.

But such a measure would meet with political resistance. A 2011 Ohio law to limit public-sector collective bargaining was defeated overwhelmingly in a ballot referendum after a campaign by police, fire and teachers unions. Persuading unions to give ground would require a recognition there are real job-security concerns that inform these negotiations. Particularly for officers without college degrees, getting fired from a police force can be financially devastating. Perhaps one way to make unions more amenable to stricter discipline would be to offer higher pay, especially for young officers, in exchange.

One source of the widespread anger and frustration about what was done to George Floyd is the belief that there are ready solutions to the problem of police abuse. As understandable as the desire for clear answers to serious problems is, this belief is misplaced. So is the assertion that policing is a fundamentally rotten enterprise. The road to real reform begins not with a rush forward but with a step back to consider the complicated realities that passions may be obscuring.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)

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Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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