Over-zealous policing: it’s the incentives

I’m pretty sure I’ve written before on the scourge of democracy that is civil forfeiture– apparently not enough— (police have huge incentives to make drug arrests and legally seize the property of the alleged offenders).  Here’s a great post from Jordan Weissman on how police, like those in Ferguson, are given incentives to harass and nickel-and-dime their citizens to death to pay for their budget.  Bad incentives= bad outcomes:

When you split a metro area into dozens of tiny local governments (St. Louis County, to be clear, doesn’t include the actual city of St. Louis, which spun off from it in the 19th century), they tend to duplicate each others’ services, which is of course extremely expensive. But raising taxes so that each tiny borough can afford its own police and fire department is a nonstarter, since wealthy residents can always just move one town over. End result: You have police departments that self-fund by handing out tickets. And thanks to the delightful racial dynamics of U.S. law enforcement, black residents are disproportionately stopped and accosted, even though police in Ferguson are less likely to find contraband when they search black drivers than when they search whites.

Michael Brown wasn’t being pulled over for speeding when he was shot. But we’re talking about the broader issues that poison the relationship between a community and the cops who are, theoretically, paid to protect them.

In a way, you can think of it as a small-bore version of the problem with civil forfeiture laws, which allow state and federal governments to confiscate property allegedly involved in crimes and which are often accused of encouraging “for-profit policing.” The same way the Justice Department puts the heat on its lawyers to increase forfeiture claims in drug cases—because that’s where they can skim money—local police have every incentive to crank up their traffic stops.

If you want good policing, you need to give the police incentive to be good.  All too often the incentives for police are not to protect and to serve, but to arrest and make cash.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Over-zealous policing: it’s the incentives

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    From the point of view of those who want to milk the public one way or another, the more local governments the better.
    That’s one reason why the loss of local newspapers is so dangerous to the public.

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