Should We Defund The Police?

Episode Summary

"Defund the police" has become one of the central demands coming from the protests that have arisen following George Floyd's killing at the hands of a white police office. On this episode, Kate and Luigi take an economist's look at the concept of defunding the police.

Episode Transcription

Kate: Two and a half weeks ago, George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a police officer who was on duty at the time. Chauvin has now been charged with second-degree murder.

Luigi: Since then, not only the United States, but the world has erupted in demonstrations and protests in support of racial equality. While there are many issues at hand—the racial wage gap, and intersectionality between race, gender, and wealth—at the heart of this protest is anti-Black racism by the police. 

Kate: Through these protests, I think what many have realized is that it’s easy to take your relationship with the police for granted if you’re not a member of a group that’s traditionally been discriminated against by the police. For many white people, that is, the police are the ones who show up if you hear a window break, or the ones who make sure you don’t get too close to the 4th of July fireworks display. On the whole, they can be a comforting presence. 

Luigi: George Floyd is just another reminder that this, by and large, is not true if you are a Black person and living in the United States. To many, the police are a reason not to go for a run or a walk in certain streets. They are the reason some people build their lives around not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The perpetual state of anxiety about the ones who are supposed to keep you safe, that can affect every part of your life. 

Kate: In today’s episode, we want to talk about the relationship between Black Americans and the police. What are the problems, and how can we frame the solutions? I’m not sure we’ll go as far as to actually come up with the right solutions, though. 

Luigi: We’re going to do mostly listening in this episode rather than talking, and we’re going to listen to three very special guests: Caroline Hoxby, who is a professor at Stanford and an expert in public-sector unions; Ghian Foreman, who is the president of the police supervisory board in Chicago; and Bocar Ba, who is a researcher who has studied the behavior of the police in Chicago in a lot of detail. 

Kate: From Georgetown University, this is Kate Waldock.

Luigi: And from the University of Chicago, this is Luigi Zingales.

Kate: You’re listening to Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what’s working in capitalism today.

Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.

Kate: We want to start this conversation by looking at the governance of police departments. 

Luigi: And we wanted to get a firsthand perspective from someone in that role.

Kate: We spoke to Ghian Foreman, the president of the Chicago Police Board, a mayorally appointed body in charge of disciplining police officers. 

Luigi: In a shocking circumstance, Foreman was actually struck by police officers during last weekend’s protests, when he coincidentally encountered a demonstration on Chicago’s South Side.

Today we’re very fortunate to have a special guest helping us understand the situation. His name is Ghian Foreman. By the way, are you OK? The beating did not hurt too much, or did it? 

Ghian Foreman: Yeah, it hurt a lot. It hurt a lot. But me being there, I got a chance to see it from both sides. I was trying to stop protesters from hitting police. And I was trying to stop police from hitting protesters. So, I got to see it from a different perspective, very different from when I’m just reading a case or looking at a hearing, very different. 

I’m going through the process now of filing a complaint. That’s a scary process. “Wait, do I remember this correctly? What really happened?” And so, this is why this process is not that easy. You just went through something traumatic. I just described it as traumatic, and now I have to try to remember all the details. Was this the officer? What did he look like? How tall was he? And everybody has on the same uniform, the same masks. 

Obviously, there are some cases where there’s no complexity to this at all. 

Kate: Ghian, when I first learned that you were joining us as a guest on this show, I thought that as president of the Chicago Police Board, you were a police officer. So, apparently, this isn’t true. Can you explain to me what the Chicago Police Board does? 

Ghian Foreman: Sure. The police board is an independent body that is responsible for the ultimate oversight of the police department. We are responsible for the discipline, the most serious of disciplinary cases. Anything where there’s a recommendation of 30 days of suspension, all the way up to termination, we’re the body that oversees that, so there will be a hearing. And then, the police board actually makes the decision and ultimately decides the fate of the officer. 

Kate: Can you explain to us what is a police union, and how do police unions affect the everyday lives of police officers? 

Ghian Foreman: Sure, so as with any organized labor, there’s a body that represents the workforce. The police union negotiates a contract with a particular city, assuming that that department is unionized. One of the challenges that we have is that from a police board perspective—and not just the police board, but across the country—some of the rules are predicated based on what that union contract says. There are some state laws that predicate what can happen at the local level, but there are also some union contract issues that give certain responsibilities to certain parties. And each contract is going to be different. 

Luigi: It seems to me, there is, in my view, a gigantic failure of governance in policing, in the sense that most policemen are great people, but there are more than a few bad apples, and those are not weeded out. And particularly, even now that we have videos—and without videos, it would have been impossible to do it. But even now, with videos, there is a lot of resistance.

And I’m not an expert, but it seems that the union gets in the way. Am I wrong in interpreting it this way? 

Ghian Foreman: Well, I also interpret that unions get in the way, whether it’s police unions or teachers unions. Sometimes I think that in the effort of looking out for their membership, they end up potentially forgetting about the people that they’re actually serving. And that becomes a minor point instead of a major point. So, yeah. But I do think that there is a foundation that can be built upon. Starting over, maybe that’s one way to look at it. Minneapolis is potentially looking at kind of starting over now. Maybe that’s one way, and you figure out, OK, what worked and what didn’t work, and how do we take the best of what we had and build upon that?

Kate: But you mentioned earlier that the union negotiates a contract, and I’m assuming that contract is negotiated either directly with the city or with the state. Is that right?

Ghian Foreman: With the city.

Kate: With the city. OK. But then, you, as a member of the police board, you said that you had to respect that contract. Can you give us an example of how that contract might get in the way of your functioning as a member of the board or sort of tie your hands in terms of what you are able to do? 

Ghian Foreman: Yeah, so a simple example that I’ll give is, if an officer comes before the police board with a certain allegation, and we’re reviewing the case, we go back and look at their disciplinary history. So, maybe this person has a history of a certain type of incident happening over time. But if they were not found guilty of it in front of the police board, we can’t see anything older than five years. So, if you did something every five years, the police board would never see it. It could be a pretty serious infraction, but we couldn’t see it. Or you could have 100 complaints in your file, but we don’t get to see that, depending on the age. 

That’s just a simple example of something that we kind of feel like, is that fair? We don’t really get a full picture. But then, from a due-process perspective, the union is saying, well, in five years a lot could have changed. This person could be very different, and why would you look back in history so much?

A lot of these kinds of things are changing now with having the internet, having access to so much data. The public can actually see these records now, but I, as a police-board member, cannot use this as a part of my decision-making process.

Kate: Wow, that’s got to be tough. 

Ghian Foreman: It is, it is. And so, sometimes you really feel like you’re at a disadvantage the next day when a newspaper story comes out, but it wasn’t information that I had the ability to consider. 

Luigi: But can you fire people for persistent minor offenses that indicate that there is not the proper attitude? Suppose that a police officer is caught 20 times in five years using racial slurs and stuff like that. Can you fire him or her—most of the time it is him—for that? 

Ghian Foreman: The way our process in Chicago works is that that recommendation would have to come from the superintendent’s office. There would be a hearing, it would come before us, the lawyers for both sides would put information in front of us, and then we would have to make a decision based on that information. Racial slurs are one of those things that, typically, I’ve seen a person be fired for. 

Luigi: But give me a sense of the order of magnitude. How many policemen are fired every year for events like this?

Ghian Foreman: Overall, they come to the police board and are terminated, probably 15 a year. There are some who resign before it gets to the police board. And, again, we only deal with 30 days and up, so there are others who have been suspended, or something has gone to arbitration, but as far as the police board, because we only get the most serious, maybe 15 to 20 a year.

Kate: Out of a police corps of 20,000, 30,000?

Ghian Foreman: 13,000.

Kate: OK.

Luigi: A lot of protesters now are asking for defunding of the police. How do you respond to those? 

Ghian Foreman: I’ve been hearing people ask for defunding. And I say, well, what does that mean? People have been having a hard time saying. And what I think it really means is a reallocation away from the police department to some other things, so, to the parks, or to the schools or to the workforce. And I think that that’s not necessarily a bad idea, in that a lot of the problems that the police have to deal with are a result of some of the other societal issues that we’re dealing with. 

If you are working in an area where there’s significantly high unemployment, chances are there’s going to be significantly high crime. And we’ve done some analysis to look at vacant storefronts to see where the shootings occur. I only did a couple of factors, but there’s a really high correlation that if you have a lot of vacant storefronts in that area, there’s going to be a lot of shootings. If you have a lot of vacant land, there’s going to be a lot of shootings. In New York, you don’t see places with a lot of vacant land, but here in Chicago, we have a ton of areas with a lot of vacant land. That’s where the violence is. 

If there was a way to say, “Huh, what if we invested so there were fewer boarded-up storefronts, or less vacant land, then would the shootings be less?” Which, therefore, you would need fewer police to patrol this area.

Kate: But the complete defunding of police? I’m assuming you’re not completely on board with that. 

Ghian Foreman: No, people can’t even get along with their neighbors. So, how are we going to police ourselves? We turn on the television and the highest-rated show is the housewives, and they fight each other every day. Are we going to have anybody to police us? If somebody kicks in my door, I’m calling 911, and I don’t want my neighbor to show up, I want a police officer to show up. And I think that there has to be some balance. I talk to a lot of young people who are talking about defunding. I’m saying, “OK, well, defund and do what? What’s that BATNA? What is the alternative that we have instead of the police? And how do we know that that’s going to be effective? Why won’t that system be corrupted?”

I think it’s complex problems that we just really have to make sure that we think all the way through down the line, and not just the knee-jerk reaction.

Luigi: Defunding the police has become somewhat of a rallying cry for protests and a direct action they call for from their government. 

Kate: We want to explore this concept of defunding the police in greater detail with another economist. 

Luigi: We reached out to Caroline Minter Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, who has done some important work on public-sector unions. She had a lot to say about the effects of police unions and the economics of defunding the police.

Kate: Caroline, welcome to the show. 

Caroline Hoxby: Thank you so much for having me today on the podcast. 

Luigi: Caroline, I hate the use of labels. And I think they are particularly meaningless today. I don’t understand what it means to be conservative or not to be conservative. But I think that most people will classify you more on the conservative side of the economic spectrum. What I would like to understand from you is, do you trust the police?

Caroline Hoxby: No. I think we ought to defund the police, and I don’t trust them, and I am a conservative.

Kate: What do you mean by defunding the police? 

Caroline Hoxby: I mean, not giving them any more money and maybe starting something different. Let’s just be economists for a moment and think about this. What if you went to Home Depot, and they stacked their shelves in such a way that one out of every 100 times you went to Home Depot you were killed by heavy equipment falling on you? What if you went to the grocery store and one out of 100 times, you got poisoned food and died from it?

We don’t think this is OK. We don’t think it’s OK to have private institutions in the United States that don’t work very well for people and are frightening people and are scary to people. We would never go to that Home Depot. Sorry to blame Home Depot or the grocery store. But we would never go to those stores. So, why is it OK that we have a police force that just isn’t working for people and frightens a lot of people and doesn’t make people feel safe, but we have to pay for it anyway? That just seems wrong. And why is that a big deal to say, let’s not pay for it anymore, pay for something that actually works for us?

Kate: You’ve said it frightens people, and it makes people feel unsafe. Have you had any personal encounters with the police?

Caroline Hoxby: Not me. I’m afraid I’ve led a very boring existence. 

Kate: Exciting is not always good.

Caroline Hoxby: But my father was Black. He died recently. So was is the correct word. 

Kate: I’m sorry.

Caroline Hoxby: My father was the most squeaky-clean individual. My father was a very prominent person in Cleveland, Ohio. One day he was golfing at the Pepper Pike Country Club, and he’s leaving the country club and a police officer pulled him over. And my father, I guess, asked, “Why are you pulling me over?” And the police officer said, “Well, what are you doing here? You don’t belong at the Pepper Pike Country Club.” He had my father out of his car and up against his car. And my father was really scared. He was really frightened, and I know what he was wearing. He was wearing a golf shirt and golfing pants . . . He was dressed like a golfing person. He had his golf clubs in the car. And the police officer is calling in because he’s going to arrest my father for being in Pepper Pike. My father’s just driving home. The police officer’s, I don’t know, manager, supervisor, something said, “What are you doing? What are you doing? You’ve just pulled over Steve Minter. You remember, Stan. Let him go, let him go. That’s the wrong person.” He didn’t say, “Why are you pulling over someone for no reason?” He said, “That is the wrong person to pull over. He is so important in this city.”

But that’s totally wrong. That’s totally wrong, because what was there to protect my father except his name? And if the supervisor hadn’t recognized his name, how do I know that my father wouldn’t have been killed by that police officer? That’s what’s wrong with American police. And that’s just not working for people. That’s why people are frightened of them. That’s not OK.

Luigi: Caroline, you have fought against another powerful union, which is the teachers union. Why don’t we have more research on the unions? Because it seems the police union is super powerful. We have not seen a lot of economic research documenting the distortion of that.

Caroline Hoxby: You know, we should have more research on police unions, but I think the reason people don’t do research on police unions is that people are frightened of them and terrified of them. Anyone who looks me up will know that I did some research on teachers unions. And the empirical strategy that I use to try to understand teachers unions, really, you could use exactly the same empirical strategy to try to understand police unions. Public-sector unions were all made legal at about the same time, so it’s not like the teachers unions were made legal, and then, 10 years later, the police unions were made legal. You could use the same empirical strategy. 

Nobody wants to do research on the police unions, because they’re afraid that they will be targeted by the police, and they will be hurt by the police, and they will be not protected by the police. If I did research on teachers unions, and I faced death threats, and I faced stalking behavior, and I faced incredibly disruptive and horrible behavior from people within the economics profession . . . Frankly, the teachers are not really like the police. They don’t carry guns. At the end of the day, the police are scary. But teachers . . . your teacher’s mostly not scary. Teachers are, largely, really nice people.

If I faced what I faced from having written an article on the teachers unions, I can’t imagine what you would face if you decided to write an article about the police unions. And that’s not OK. Luigi, you’re from Italy, and in Italy, there is organized crime, regardless of what name it goes by—the Cosa Nostra, whatever. Organized crime, how does it work? It is you paying me protection money, and I don’t torch your business. In some ways, I think there’s more accountability with the Italian mob than there is for American police. Because, at least in Italy, hey, if the mob isn’t actually protecting me in my business, maybe some other mob will take over. In America, we just have the police, and if you don’t want to pay taxes as a taxpayer, too bad. I think it’s worse. I think it’s worse. I think I’d rather have the mob, frankly.

Luigi: You say at least there’s some competition among mobsters, but police is an absolute monopoly and a monopoly with guns, which is the worst kind of monopoly.

Caroline Hoxby: Exactly, exactly. Also, I will just say, we have to be honest about American life. I don’t know whether you have seen this video, but the video that I found most upsetting . . . I haven’t watched that George Floyd . . . I won’t even watch that. I don’t need to be educated in that way. But the video of the Buffalo Police Department cops cheering the two officers who had to go to court for assault, because they assaulted a 75-year-old man, and he was bleeding. He was bleeding out of his head and had to go to the ICU in Buffalo. And they’re cheering him. What’s wrong with this picture is, it’s not two bad apples who had to go, but there’s a whole police department which thinks that the bad apples are good. Of course, you should defund that department, because you can’t fix that.

Luigi: But as a governance expert, I tend to see everything through those lenses. And, in my view, this is a major failure in governance, because if you compare this with the Army, the Army did a pretty remarkable job at integrating the various minorities—and women, by the way. And it is far from perfect, of course, there are cases, et cetera, but it is probably 1,000 times better than the police. 

So, I think that this is possible if there is the will. The problem is, it seems, that there is no political will. And my fear is the following. I want to know, because you know much more about public finance than I do. But my impression is that the real threatening power the police have with every mayor is that if you don’t let us do what we want to do, we are going to depolice the area, and there’s going to be crime, and basically, you’re not going to be reelected. 

And so, at the end of the day, many mayors, whether they are Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t make any difference, they want to be reelected. They compromise and say, we tolerate, as you said, the Home Depot incidents, because we want to be reelected. And so, there is not enough accountability, because the police are a local monopoly and they are very powerful.

Caroline Hoxby: Well, OK, so you’re absolutely right. The police are incredibly, incredibly powerful in local elections. And local elections in the United States have very low voting participation rates. It’s not unusual to have areas in which 15 percent of the people vote, maybe 20 percent of the people vote, in local elections. And there just isn’t a lot of money for campaigns in local elections. So, most of the money for local elections in the United States comes from the public-sector unions. It comes from the police union, the teachers union, the firemen’s association, and so forth. 

And, therefore, most local politicians are beholden to their local public-sector unions. And that’s just true. So, of course, you have all these local politicians, they’re not going to hold these people accountable for anything, because that’s who got them elected. And, unfortunately, American taxpayers don’t seem to have any way of redressing this.

Kate: On this podcast, we’ve discussed unions a couple of times. And I think Luigi has been fair and impartial about his views on unions. I personally tend to be a little bit biased in favor of unions and organized labor. But having said that, the issue here is different. We’re talking about public-sector unions, not private-sector unions, and that distinction often goes unnoticed. So, why is that important? And how should we think differently about public-sector unions?

Caroline Hoxby: Private-sector unions and public-sector unions are totally different. Let’s just remember a little bit of American history. Public-sector unions were illegal in the United States until the 1960s. So, what was the rationale behind that? The rationale behind that was that a union, essentially, is a monopoly. It’s a monopoly of workers. They’re the only people who sell you the workers, essentially. The problem was that when you created a public-sector union, you were creating a monopoly that was against taxpayers. And that taxpayers were sufficiently dispersed or disorganized, as voters, to not be able to oppose this monopoly. That’s why they were illegal.

In contrast, let’s say I’m a private-sector union and I’m negotiating against Ford Motor, I’m sorry to pick them out, but—

Kate: Might as well stick with Home Depot. 

Caroline Hoxby: —that’s a famous union. Then, Ford has to compete with GM, and it had to compete with Chrysler. And the classic age of private-sector unionization in the United States was, essentially, power on the one hand, the monopolists, against the monopsonists. And so, there was a lot of headbutting. But, at the end of the day, you had to recognize that the market was the marketplace and you couldn’t ask for just anything. You had to ask for things that were going to be sufficiently reasonable that your employer would still be able to employ you at the end of the day and sell some products. And, if you went over the top and asked for too much stuff, your employer went out of business, and you lost your job, and that wasn’t great. There was a control mechani— . . . It wasn’t a perfect control mechanism. But there was a control mechanism that was built into the system because of market forces. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to the government, there’s no control mechanism. What’s the control mechanism?

Luigi: Caroline, let me play devil’s advocate for a second, because I live in Chicago, as I always remind my kids, shooting distance from a place where 500 people get killed every year. While I’m very sympathetic to your point of defunding the police, we need something to keep that in check. Actually, our producer had a friend who had to move into his apartment last weekend, because they were shooting in a neighborhood and it was very dangerous. What is the alternative? We defund the police, great. What do we do next?

Caroline Hoxby: Yeah, but I didn’t say we defund the police and we decide not to have any public-safety system in the United States. But I think we need to recognize that whatever our police are doing is not working very well. I always think that as Americans, it’s hard for us often to learn lessons. But the fact is that the English, the United Kingdom, has an extremely different policing system than our policing system. Cops in the UK do not carry guns. They do have the ability to get guns for certain types of situations. The Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, they all have different systems than we have, and to say . . . and the Irish. So, we can go and learn how they do things. And I refuse to believe that we cannot improve. Come on. Be serious. We can do it. It’s not that hard.

Kate: We’ve also spoken to Bocar Ba, who’s a fellow at UPenn’s Law School and will be joining the economics department at UC Irvine soon. He’s done a lot of interesting empirical research on police departments. So, we’re so pleased to have on the show Bocar Ba. Welcome to the show, Bocar.

Bocar Ba: Thank you for having me. 

Luigi: You’ve done very interesting work on the impact that racial composition of the police force has on what they do. 

Bocar Ba: OK, so I’m going to restrict myself to Chicago, because I think I have a good understanding of what’s going on. Often what I hear is that same-race policing might be the solution. One argument that people have to take into account is that the set of minorities that are selecting into the police department might be very different from the set of people they are policing. Where does the police department assign their minorities? It seems to us, at least observationally, that Black officers are assigned to Black neighborhoods, white officers to white neighborhoods, and Hispanic officers to Hispanic neighborhoods. 

It also seems that police officers have very different political preferences than the population they are policing. On average, police officers are way more conservative than the population. White officers are more conservative than Black officers. And Hispanic officers are more conservative than white officers. 

Kate: Oh, interesting. 

Bocar Ba: Often, we tend to compare the world like the baseline is white versus minority. What we’re showing in that paper is that it’s more complicated. The behavior of Hispanic officers is closer to white than Black officers. They are more aggressive when they’re interacting with a Hispanic civilian relative to white. And, on the other hand, Black officers tend to be less aggressive when they’re interacting with Black civilians relative to white. Maybe we want to diversify the police. But we need to take into account that questions related to race are multidimensional and not unidimensional. From the previous literature, I’ve seen many papers that focus only on white versus minority, or white versus Black. People might need to take into account other underrepresented groups, like Hispanic or Asian and Pacific Islander, and see how it works when we talk about this.

Luigi: Sorry, I’m Italian, and let’s say I see that Sicilian policemen arrest less people in Sicily. This could be for two reasons, one is that everybody else overarrests, or the Sicilian policemen underarrest. And can you tell those two things apart?

Bocar Ba: Yeah. We look at Black, white, and Hispanic officers. They don’t differ in terms of arrests for violent crime and property crime. However, we find that Black officers make less arrests related to drug offenses. There is this underpolicing argument that you’re making for drug offenses. But one needs to take into account that there have been a lot of recent policies related to drug legalization of marijuana. How do we think about how people were arrested for marijuana possession? One needs to be cautious about that and mindful about it. I don’t know if it’s underenforcing or overenforcing the law. But, at least in the data, we see that Black officers are less likely to make a drug arrest than the others. 

The other thing is that for property crime and violent crime, police officers have less discretion. For drugs, there is a lot of discretion. So, how should we think about optimal enforcement, and in terms of welfare improvement, how it impacts our society as a whole? A bunch of people were locked up back in the day for drug offenses, and now, we release them, because we see that it might be too costly for society.

Kate: Typically, when we think about law enforcement, rules enforcement, property-rights enforcement, we think of more enforcement as a good thing. Is that necessarily the case when it comes to the police? And if not, what can flip that assumption?

Bocar Ba: Essentially, we assume that arrests are a good measure of the productivity and effort of police officers. We’re not looking at what happened to that arrest. We are not looking at whether or not the case was dismissed. We are not looking at whether that person was found guilty or not guilty. So, there have been a lot of theoretical models that discuss whether or not someone is innocent or guilty. But when you start playing with the data, it’s pretty hard to link those two steps. 

I started doing some initial work on that. I can say that thinking that an arrest is a good measure of police-officer productivity might not be a good idea. And police officers, when they arrest someone, maybe they’re not arresting the right guy. Maybe they are arresting the guy that is easy to arrest. What do we think about the impact of bad policing? If we think that a police officer putting his hands on or trying to enforce the law against someone who’s totally innocent, that might have an impact on that person. 

How do we quantify that? I’m not sure, unfortunately, that we have tried to assess that. And we’re not taking into account that maybe when you enforce the law against an innocent, that has an impact on the community that is not going to trust the police anymore. And, essentially, there will be some bad externalities.

Luigi: I’m surprised that you didn’t answer by saying, if the arrest process is unbiased, then maybe more enforcement is good. But if it is systematically biased, then it’s not obvious that’s the case. Using as a measure of productivity something that can have a substantive bias, I think, is quite problematic.

Bocar Ba: I totally agree with you. We do not have a good measure of productivity. So, theoretically, what you have said is totally right, but empirically, we haven’t verified it because of how hard it is to get the data.

Kate: Yeah, can you tell us more about that?

Bocar Ba: Arrest data are with the police department, and court data and court outcomes are with the [district attorney’s] office. Researchers, often when we think about those processes, we think about the processes as independent of each other. They are not. Good luck finding a way to have access to the arrest data. So, I have the arrest data in Chicago. It essentially took me three years to have access to the data, and a bunch of lawyers. I have the court data, but good luck having access to the court data and linking that together, because you need to have some kind of institutional knowledge of how to link both types of information together, or some special access to powerful people in the city.

Kate: And that’s just one city you’re talking about, right?

Bocar Ba: That is just one city. Knowing the institutional details is pretty tricky as an outsider.

Luigi: Speaking of institutional details, can you tell us about this phenomenon that is often discussed of depolicing, that when the police are under investigation, all of a sudden you see crime going up?

Bocar Ba: OK. When people are making that argument, I think what they are trying to say is, does policing the police increase crime? If the police feel they can’t act freely, they will cut down policing, and crime will rise, as you say. The interesting thing is that this argument is usually made during a period of scandal and civil unrest. Essentially, when you have a scandal, or when you have those investigations from the Department of Justice—and that is public information—what happened is, on one side, police officers are cutting down policing, it’s hard for them to do their job, and on the other side, the population trusts the police less. They might be less likely to call 911. They might be more likely to resist arrest and might be more upset at the police overall.

And what we’re arguing is that it’s very tricky to make the argument that depolicing increased crime during this type of period. One needs to be careful because of that simultaneity issue. Everyone is changing their behavior.

Luigi: But we do know that when the police don’t get the raise they want, they seem to be working less hard. The fact that the police union is using that as a threat is not inconceivable.

Bocar Ba: Yeah, I think that is actually very true and right. Alex Mas has this paper in 2006 about that. But when the union is negotiating with the city about a police raise, I’m not sure that the population knows what’s going on. It’s some kind of internal oversight. In the paper that we wrote, we actually find that similar argument. 

We have this complaint data in Chicago’s fight against police officers available publicly. And the way it was made possible is that there was a lawsuit that started in 2009 by this guy named Jamie Kalven to have access to those data. And apparently, what happened is that the police union sent an internal note to the police officers, telling them, “Hey, guys, you need to be cautious about your complaints, and if someone filed a complaint against you, let us know. We will help you and figure it out.” And here what we see is that the level of perceived oversight increases, so police officers changed their behaviors, less complaints were filed against them without arrest or crime rates being impacted.

Meaning here that internal oversight has an impact on police behavior. They can behave properly without crime being impacted. But on the other end, if police officers are upset en masse, because they did not get the pay raise, maybe they will change their behavior by cutting down policing, and maybe crime will go up. What I’m saying is there is a lot of stuff that is going on there. And we still don’t know what it means. And one needs to be cautious when we’re making those arguments of depolicing, and trying to tie depolicing with oversight and those DOJ investigations.

Luigi: Sorry, I’m a little confused, because the way, at least, I look at it is, if the teachers, or let’s say the professors, say, “Oh, if you rate us as students, we are going to teach less well, because we’re upset,” I would find that preposterous. If the police, when we ask for some form of supervision, react by stopping their work or by doing their work less well, that’s an indictment of what the police are about and a reason that we need to fix this governance, not a reason not to oversee the police.

Bocar Ba: I agree with you. I don’t know what to say. More work needs to be done there.

Kate: All right, so I’d like to move to this hot-button term right now, which has become somewhat popular, this idea of defunding the police. Can you tell us about what that means to you? And is there a way to think about defunding that’s concrete and actionable?

Bocar Ba: It’s essentially reducing the number of tasks that police have to do and reducing the amount of money they have access to and moving that money to other services in the city. Let’s say someone is in a mental-health crisis. We don’t send a police officer, we send a social worker. Let’s say there is a homeless person on the corner or someone with a drug addiction. We don’t send a police officer, we send someone that has some training in public health or a social worker or someone working at a shelter. 

The budget in Chicago for public safety was $2.5 billion in 2018. Sixty-two percent of that budget goes to the Chicago Police Department. So, $1.5 billion goes to the Chicago Police Department. If you look at the budget for community services, the total budget was about $640 million in 2018.

What I think those folks want is to take some resources from the police department budget and give it more to community services. And this is what they mean by defunding the police. Is it the right solution? I don’t know.

Luigi: So, Kate, what did you learn from these three interviews?

Kate: I think the overarching message that I’ve learned is that this is a terribly complicated issue. And one that’s relatively opaque. It’s rife with a lot of misunderstanding. And some of that misunderstanding stems from the fact that we just don’t have a whole lot of data on police. What do you think, Luigi?

Luigi: You really talk like an economist, you need more data, but I think you’re right. I had a few things that struck me. It struck me how difficult it is to do research in this area, because at the end of the day, the police control the data. There is a risk that researchers that try to do research in this area end up being captured by the police. This is, after all, what George Stigler would have said, “If you control the data, you control who regulates you,” and the police are definitely in that camp. 

I think that nobody seems to have a solution. But everybody seems to agree that there is a big problem.

Kate: So, then, Luigi, what would your solution be?

Luigi: Look, there are a lot of policemen that risk their lives to do their jobs properly. And I think that they should be respected. I don’t think that every policeman is a criminal just because they’re part of the police, which is not just a few bad apples, because those bad apples have contaminated the basket. And so, what you need to do is to fix the problem so that the good apples that are in the baskets are not contaminated. I think that the root of a lot of these problems is the monopoly that police have on a local level. And this monopoly is so strong that even mayors defer to the police rather than supervising the police. 

In other situations, I advocated that when you have a monopoly, you should break it up. Rather than necessarily defund the police overall, I think breaking it up into forces that do different tasks has two major benefits. Number one, you have more specialized forces that can better do what they are supposed to do. And, number two, you can use what we call an economic benchmark or yardstick competition to see how they perform. And, actually, now that I think of it, number three, you make the local officials, the mayor, et cetera, less embedded with the police. Because if I only have these police and I start to criticize them, then we have what we heard is depolicing, I get a lot more crime, and I don’t get to be reelected. And so, the mayors live in fear of the monopoly of the police. If you had multiple police forces like in Italy, you can use one against the other.

Now, of course, there are a lot of problems that come with it. And Italy is an example, their inefficiency, et cetera. But at the end of the day, here, we’re talking about basically controlling a force that has the monopoly on the use of violence. So, it’s very important that the public authorities be in charge and not the other way around.

Kate: I like your framing of this issue, that it’s fundamentally a monopoly problem. I’m not entirely convinced that this will be a solution everywhere in the country, because there will invariably be some smaller towns, smaller cities, where it’s just not financially feasible to have two different forces. But I think one way of generating competition, in addition to what you’ve described, which I think would work in larger cities, is to have more oversight that’s centralized at the federal level. And I think this will also help with information, because it’ll have to be collected in some standardized way across all police departments in the country. But I also think that it’ll mean that there’s a central body at the federal government level that’s forcing different police departments to compete with one another and to prove that they’re kind of on the same level in terms of outcomes and using money efficiently and not being systemically racist. And so, I would like to see both solutions implemented.

In memory of Tanisha Anderson.

Matt Hodapp: Delrawn Small.

Luigi: Natasha McKenna.

Kate: Eric Garner.

Matt Hodapp: Eric Reason.

Luigi: Trayvon Martin.

Kate: Freddie Gray.

Matt Hodapp: Breonna Taylor.

Luigi: Michael Brown.

Kate: Sandra Bland.

Matt Hodapp: George Floyd.

Luigi: Tamir Rice.

Kate: Ezell Ford.

Matt Hodapp: Michelle Cusseaux.

Luigi: Philando Castile.

Kate: Dominique Clayton.

Matt Hodapp: Dante Parker.

Luigi: Walter Scott.

Kate: Laquan McDonald.

Matt Hodapp: Alton Sterling and many more.