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Another Kind of Police Brutality

Summary:
You don't buy the idea that the police protest the protests not just by a certain amount of brutality but also by shirking their jobs with the excuse that they will get in trouble if they are too active in policing?— Miles Kimball (@mileskimball) October 20, 2021 One of the most severe forms of police brutality is inaction: when police don’t protect people from criminals. Recently, police have been committing this form of brutal inaction because of their pique at being criticized for the more direct and active forms of police brutality. This shouldn’t be. It is possible for the police to do their job effectively

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Another Kind of Police Brutality

One of the most severe forms of police brutality is inaction: when police don’t protect people from criminals. Recently, police have been committing this form of brutal inaction because of their pique at being criticized for the more direct and active forms of police brutality. This shouldn’t be. It is possible for the police to do their job effectively without mistreating people.

In the perhaps overpoliticized op-ed shown above (from which the next several quotations below are taken) Jason Riley makes some good points about what has happened in the wake of efforts to reduce active police brutality. Police are retaliating against criticism by shirking their jobs. The excuse is that they will be persecuted if they do their jobs. But that is acting as if rules for not mistreating people make it impossible to do effective policing. In any case, the police reaction to criticism has likely had an effect on crime rates. Jason gives some statistics:

Murders spiked by close to 30% in 2020, the biggest one-year increase since 1960. Aggravated assaults rose by 12%, and violent crime overall increased by 5.6% from 2019 levels. The left blames Covid-19, but the trend predates the pandemic. Violent crime, which more or less had been steadily declining since the early 1990s, began reversing course in 2015, not 2020. “Violent crime and homicide rates rose in the U.S. in 2016 for the second consecutive year, driven in part by a spike in murders in large cities,” the Journal reported in 2017, citing FBI data.

… Murders in Atlanta rose 62% from 2019 to 2020 …

… The Seattle Police Department investigated 73% more homicides in 2020 than it did a year earlier …

The link to police shirking to protest the protests against police can be seen in research by Roland Fryer and Tanaya Devi that Jason describes as follows:

A 2020 study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer and co-author Tanaya Devi assessed the impact of these “viral” incidents and noticed a disturbing pattern: police become less proactive, their contacts with civilians decline, and violent crime spikes. That’s what happened in Ferguson after Brown was shot by an officer, in Chicago when the same thing happened to Laquan McDonald, in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody, and in Minneapolis after a cop murdered George Floyd.

Backing up the idea that there is an impulse among police to protest the protests against police behavior by shirking is the fact that many police are implicitly protesting the protests against police by retiring:

300 police officers have retired or resigned from SPD [Seattle Police Department] in the past 18 months, offset by about 90 new hires …

While I think it is important to take seriously the possibility I am emphasizing that beat cops are pulling back to show their displeasure at being criticized rather than because they rationally fear punishment for diligently doing their jobs in an appropriate way, incentives to follow bad criminological theories probably operate among the higher ranks of those who lead policing. Jason points to these areas where what might be reasonable reforms directionally have badly overshot:

In addition to vilifying police, many states and cities have passed “bail reform” laws that limit the ability of judges to hold defendants until trial. Local prosecutors now brag about how few crimes they prosecute. California has effectively decriminalized shoplifting.

There is a long history of terrible discrimination by police in doing little when crimes are committed against Black people. In Jason Willick’s writeup of his interview with Robert Woodson, he quote Robert as follows:

“whenever a black created a crime against another black, it was ignored and minimized, right?” Similarly, “if a white committed a crime against a black, it was ignored. But if a black committed a crime against a white, it was harshly treated.” That, Mr. Woodson says, is “what we fought against” in the civil-rights movement.

Another Kind of Police Brutality

To this day, lack of sufficient policing in Black areas is one of the most important types of structural racism in our country. This is, indeed, a much larger and more important element of structural racism in our nation than active police brutality against Blacks. But there is no reason police can’t both do a lot more stringent and active policing of Black areas to protect Black people from crime without mistreating innocent people in those areas. A lot of it is about attitude. It is even possible to do a form of “stop and frisk” and still treat people with great dignity.

Of course, it takes something extra in order to expect police to be better. I think one of the most straightforward mechanisms is to require bachelor’s degrees for police. There may be areas of American life where there is too much wokeness, but I’ll bet it is would lead to better policing if rank-and-file police were somewhat more woke than they are. And spending a little more time on woke college campuses could help accomplish that.

But wokeness is not enough. Religious and Enlightenment beliefs about the inherent dignity of each human being are also important to inculcate into the hearts of those who will implement the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Personal psychological development is also important, so inner demons don’t get taken out on others that police deal with in the course of their jobs.

All of this takes time, hence the important I see in a 4-year college degree for those who would be police. Of course, this will cost more in police salaries. If we want better police, we’d better not be defunding the police. If we are going to expect more from them than we have in the past, we need to give them more.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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