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How more and better police could lead to less incarceration, explained by an expert

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Over the past year, there has been a greater focus on racial disparities in the criminal justice system and police use of force in particular. But one topic that's received much less attention is how to actually improve policing to make the public safer without contributing to the forces — such as mass incarceration — that helped make the criminal justice system so seemingly unfair and punitive.

Wesley Skogan is an expert on crime and policing at Northwestern University who has been studying these issues for more than four decades. I contacted him last week to talk about some of the ways policing could be improved without leading to the outcomes people have protested since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

One idea, for instance, is to deploy more police officers on the ground. Intuitively, this might seem like it would exacerbate some of the problems seen in Ferguson — more cops could mean more officers to harass people over petty crimes, potentially leading to more racially biased arrests. But more police officers can have a different effect: The presence of more officers can deter crime, leading to a reduced need for arrests and police action — and act as a better allocation of limited criminal justice resources than longer prison sentences, which have reached the point of diminishing returns.

But whether this is effective hinges not just on whether a city, county, or state deploys more police, but on how the cops are used. To work out these details, I talked to Skogan by phone. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

More police as a harm reduction strategy

Chicago police cars. Scott Olson/Getty Images

German Lopez: What's the case for more police officers?

Wesley Skogan: It's about harm reduction. To put it broadly, because of course police deal with a lot of stuff — they charge into burning buildings, they save more lives by traffic control than they do by trying to stop murder — there's a lot of things that police do that's harm reduction.

The evidence is interpreted — I think by smart people — that the harm reduction effects of policing give you more bang for the buck than the harm reduction effects of incarceration. The harm reduction effects of incarceration would be the crime deterrent impact, but then you have to subtract out a lot of bad consequences of incarceration, both for individuals who are caught up in it and for the communities and families that they come from. So you come up with a net effect of incarceration, and it looks to be a lot less than the net harm reduction from having more well-trained, well-motivated police on the streets.

Partly it comes because many of the harm reduction things we don't think about when we talk about the police, since we think of them mainly for crime. But drinking-while-driving enforcement and speeding enforcement are more important — alcohol and car crashes kill more people than homicides in this country1. A lot of harm reduction comes from stuff like that. And that's a big job of the police.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that excessive drinking kills 88,000 people each year, car crashes kill 34,000, and homicides kill 16,000. Some research suggests that better enforcement of DUI laws have helped reduce deaths from both of these sources, and stricter driving laws can cut down traffic deaths.

So the argument is made to shift resources to police from incarceration.

How better policing strategies cut crime — and potentially mass incarceration

Prisons are surprisingly important to plumbing improvements. Shutterstock

GL: One concern with the idea of hiring more cops is that having more police officers could lead to more arrests. But is that right?

WS: Well, I think there's a deterrent effect that can reduce crime and arrests. Remember, we're talking about putting more police on the ground, and that reduces crime rates2.

The research generally suggests that more cops lead to less crime. And since there would be less crime, police would need to arrest fewer people, reducing incarceration overall.

And maybe we don't even need more cops, but we need better. People say more because more is easier to measure than better. But those poor guys who are police officers in those itty-bitty townships around St. Louis, their starting salary is $19,000 — and you get the policing that you pay for. So we could easily imagine having better policing.

It's not just about more cops — but better cops, too

Police stand in a line during protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

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GL: That's another thing I wanted to ask you about. It's not just that we should put more cops in the streets, but that we should deploy them in a smarter way, right?

WS: Right. It's not just the numbers. It's what they do and how well they do it. It's a question of smart management — you manage police and do smart priorities.

We could imagine a number of smarter strategies. One would be to continue to improve and increase the commitment of officer time to community policing activities — a number of which got lost after the Great Recession.

Another thing that would be smart is to focus on victims. It turns out that the crime rate in high-crime areas is driven more by repeat victimization than you would think — it's driven by individuals being victimized a lot rather than more victims. So helping and protecting specific victims is another smart thing they could do.

Police could also be smarter about their deployment. A lot of places have not-smart deployment strategies. A lot of cities have union contracts that have equal manning, as they call it. It means that all three shifts — day, evening, and overnight — have to have the same number of police officers contractually required. That's done in order to create a lot of cushiony daytime jobs [when some crimes are less likely to happen].

There's a whole long list of these kinds of operational things that they could do, really.

GL: One tactic that seems like it could reduce crime and arrests is hot-spot policing3. What do you make of the research surrounding hot-spot policing?

Hot-spot policing is an increasingly popular policing tactic in which police are visibly deployed in neighborhoods — under the idea that people are going to be less likely to commit crime when cops are around. Some research shows it can help reduce crime without displacing it to other areas.

WS: There's a lot of hot-spot policing research. The most recent of it, the most sophisticated of it from a design standpoint is starting to take a look at what's called blowback. That's the potential dissatisfaction of neighborhood residents — if they notice police at all, perhaps believing that their neighborhoods are being unfairly targeted. That's tricky business, because typically hot-spot policing is done in high-crime places, and there are plenty of people in high-crime places who want to see faster police responses.

But in the recent, better evaluations of hot-spot policing that account for perceptions of citizen perception, complaints, and police response time when they're called, they by and large have not found evidence of any blowback.

GL: What are some other big recommendations for better policing that haven't gotten much traction?

WS: The most dramatic talk is about consolidation4. The problem with these little police departments scattered all around of St. Louis is they don't have any staff, any resources, any capacity to be well-managed, much less offer decent services. There shouldn't be these 18,000 police departments in the US. That's a radical solution, but it doesn't mean it's not a good idea.

Consolidation combines multiple police departments, especially those in less populated, rural areas. When smaller communities pool their resources, they're able to afford investments in better training, staffing, and strategies that they couldn't otherwise. But these communities worry that consolidation would give up too much control over local policing decisions.

Shoddy training leads to shoddy policing

A police officer at a shooting range. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

GL: Particularly after the Ferguson protests, we saw a lot of complaints about the proliferation of small police departments in the St. Louis area. Does this really lead to worse policing overall?

WS: Right. There's little oversight. There's bad training. The police officers are badly paid.

The bad training, let me give you an example of a nightmare in Florida. In the state of Florida, you find a training academy that will take you, and you pay for your training. And once you have your training, then you go look for a job. That means it puts the onus of training on individuals, which means it has to be cheap, so the police training places in Florida compete on cheapness, and the training is terrible. But it's structural: They've done it in Florida that way; they want the individuals to bear the costs, not the communities. So the communities get "free" training, but of course it's a joke.

That's the Florida model. But really, across the country there's shoddy arrangements. And they guarantee we have a lot of shoddy policing.

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