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America needs to think more about the costs of policing

A researcher explains a missing variable in how we evaluate the police.

Police and security forces block access to Lafayette Square near the White House on June 3.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

One way to understand how American policing became so dysfunctional: As a society, we have focused too much on the supposed benefits of strategies to reduce crime.

We haven’t focused enough on the costs and trade-offs — such as the harm to civil liberties, the psychological toll of aggressive policing in minority neighborhoods, and higher distrust in law enforcement.

Emily Owens, a University of California Irvine economist focused on policing, said that this is one of the core problems she’s seen in police departments and much of the quantitative research around policing. When a new policing strategy is proposed, the key question is if it will cut down on crime.

But there is little to no focus on the cost, whether to trust in the police, the impact on civil liberties, or in some cases even the actual financial expenses.

“I could tell you if we did a policing policy that prevented one robbery, that saved society $90,000. I could tell you that. And that’s great; $90,000 is a lot of money,” Owens told me. “But if we were to reduce that one robbery because we stopped every single black kid with a hooded sweatshirt on, that $90,000 reduction was almost certainly not worth it. But I can’t give you a dollar value on the impact of that crazy devaluation of the lives of so many people.”

Imagine, for example, that a local police department implemented checkpoints in which officers stopped and searched every single person at every block of a city. This would almost certainly, at least in the short term, reduce crime; it would be much more difficult to do anything when police are literally stopping and frisking everyone at every block.

But would it be worth it? A lot of people certainly wouldn’t like the inconvenience and the violation of their civil liberties. (Just think of how many react to security theater at airports.)

And it might only lead to less crime in the short run because eventually people would get fed up with what they see as a draconian system. As people start to distrust that system, they may become less willing to cooperate with it. They may become less likely to report crimes — hurting police’s crime-fighting capabilities — and they may even protest, riot, or otherwise take the law into their own hands when they have a dispute with another person.

At least this hypothetical would apply to everyone equally. But this is effectively what the US has asked black and brown communities to tolerate. Whether it’s through policies like stop-and-frisk or aggressive sweeps of neighborhoods, police often target minority communities with dragnet strategies — leading to excessive use of force and distrust in police as people see themselves, their friends, and their neighbors treated unequally. If residents complain, officers assure them that they’re stopping crime by pointing to all the arrests they’ve made and the contraband they’ve seized. The hassle to people’s lives and racial disparities in all the statistics, from arrests to use of force, are glossed over.

Owens, as well as other researchers (including John Pfaff and Phillip Atiba Goff), argue this has happened on a mass scale, with police departments, policymakers, and researchers all failing to fully account for the costs of widely accepted American policing practices.

“We have not generated a lot of research quantifying the costs of policing in the same way we have a huge amount of research quantifying the benefits of policing,” Owens said.

This is bad for trust in police and, ultimately, bad for crime-fighting

As the past week of protests against police brutality have made clear, the current approach is not working. It has not only fostered distrust toward police among minority communities, but there’s good reason to believe it’s making us all less safe in the long term.

The failure of police in these communities is twofold: The harassment generates backlash and distrust. But so, too, does the police departments’ inability to solve serious crimes — in some black and brown neighborhoods, the percent of murders that lead to an arrest can fall to the single digits.

As journalist Jill Leovy explained in Ghettoside, “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

It’s this dynamic of simultaneous overpolicing and underpolicing that’s led to so much distrust in the police in minority communities. It leads many to believe that cops are not only harassing them, but also not even taking the time to protect them — to do the job that the police are there for.

There could be cause-and-effect here: Maybe forcing police to focus so much on pettier or nonviolent crimes pulls their attention from the serious crimes, and maybe the harassment could make minority communities less likely to cooperate with police, which is a necessary component to solving crimes.

Or maybe this is driven by a genuine lack of interest among policymakers and police in the safety of black and brown communities.

Whatever the cause, the distrust this trend produces isn’t just bad for police-community relations, it’s bad for crime-fighting. This is what’s known as “legal cynicism”: When people are less likely to trust the police and criminal justice system as a whole, they’re more likely to take the law into their own hands. If there’s a shooting, and you don’t trust the police to do anything about it, perhaps you’ll act on it on your own.

“When communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, previously told me. “Then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”

To put it another way, a ham-fisted approach to policing can backfire and actually lead to more crime. That’s on top of the harm done to black and brown communities who feel the physical and psychological toll of aggressive police stops and arrests on a daily or hourly basis.

It’s these kinds of costs that need to be accounted for when developing policing strategies and evaluating their benefits. But for too long, that hasn’t been done. And now we’re seeing one of the costs with protests around the country about what many perceive as abusive and racist police practices.

For more on how to reform police in America, read Vox’s explainer.

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