Chris Blattman

Defunding the police is the wrong question

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How can we get more ‘output,’ and of the right sort, from policing? The question has only taken on greater importance with recent, widely publicized instances of police misconduct; declines in public trust in police; and a rise in gun violence, all disproportionately concentrated in economically disadvantaged communities of color. Research typically focuses on two levers: (1) police resources, and (2) policing strategies or policies, historically focused on crime control but increasingly also on accountability, transparency, and fairness. Here we examine a third lever: management quality. We present three types of evidence.

First, we show there is substantial variability in violent crime and police use of force both across cities and within a city across police districts, and that this variation is related to the timing of police leader tenures.

Second, we show that an effort to change police management in selected districts in Chicago generates sizable changes in policing outcomes.

Third, as part of that management intervention the department adopted a predictive policing tool that randomizes which high-crime areas it shows to officers. We use that randomization to generate district-specific measures of implementation fidelity and show that, even within the context of a management intervention designed to improve implementation of the department’s strategies, there is variability in implementation.

A new paper from Max Kapustin, Terrence Neumann, and Jens Ludwig.

Yesterday I was on a call with a reporter about the READI Chicago program. He asked whether the city council should spend less on policing and more on programs like READI—cognitive behavioral therapy and employment opportunities for the men at highest risk of shooting.

I think there are a few answers.

One is that the answer to this kind of question will always be “yes”. The marginal dollar spent on anything—policing, social services, whatever—is poorly used. If anyone comes up with an impactful intervention, and you have a fixed budget, then it will almost always make sense to take a dollar from whatever else you’re doing and put it towards the thing that has evidence and promise. To me that’s a meta-message of this paper.

The second answer is that, when it comes to young men shooting each other on the street, any program hyper-targeted at likely shooters will always be a better investment. Anything else—from general economic development to improved schools to better policing—is never going to do more per dollar than a successful hyper-targeted program.

The key thing: there were no more than 3000 shooters in Chicago last year. The strategy for curbing this is not to deliver better security or services to Chicago’s 400,000 poor.

If we’re going to compare apples to apples, we have to talk about the kinds of policing that are hyper-targeted in the same way. One example is focussed deterrence programs, where cities tell gang leaders to get their members to stop killing, or the leaders will get prosecuted. Or more controversial strategies like predictive policing, where police track, hound, and intimidate the men identified at highest risk of shooting. You might be thinking of five reasons to do more of this, or ten reasons to do less. Great. That’s the right conversation to have.

(For a longer argument along these lines, see Thomas Abt’s book Bleeding Out.)

A third answer is that defunding police is an unproductive question. As this paper shows, there will always be better ways to do the thing you are doing. Instead of taking money away from policing, I’d prefer a conversation about making marginal dollar of policing more effective.

Admittedly, the answer might be “police forces are so poorly managed, bureaucratic, and intransigent that change is incredibly difficult.” If it’s true that police reform is too hard, that’s the best argument for channeling more funds into other strategies. I would like to see more discussion of this. I suspect it’s true. If so, in a lot of cities, including Chicago, putting the marginal dollar into something other than police is probably a better strategy for violence control, at least in the short term.

By the way, the results of the 5-year READI evaluation will drop this weekend for the first time. Stay tuned.

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[Buy my book on the causes of violence and the path to peace—Why We Fight—out April 19.]

2 Responses

  1. Chris about the ‘third answer’, and this may be too basic, but another way of looking at ‘defund the police’ is that radical ideas may bring actual reform. Instead of taking the slogan literally, some advocates mean it as a strategy to bring long-eluded reform (on accountability, training, and a range of other issues.) There seems to be a recent consensus in public opinion around the need for police reform that may be linked to the slogan. I think there’s a theory behind this, right? On the effects of radical ideas to bring change. So perhaps all these conversations around making $ count are happening, to a certain extent, because the slogan was there in the first place.

    1. I think that’s right. Activism can get attention to an issue and possibly make change by making people uncomfortable and angry, in part by saying extreme things. It’s an empirical question whether this is more productive than counter productive. I’m not actually sure. The trouble is that many activists and many of their opponents do not realize this strategy for what it is. It can excite fierce opposition and polarize. For example, does a right wing politician making some exaggerated and equally radical claim get us closer to a good reform, or a legislative compromise, when they excite their base and anger the left? Possibly, but I’m not so sure.

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