Fixing the police will take more funding, not less

It needs to be way easier to fire bad cops, and that will cost money

Defunding the police is a bad idea that, wisely, the voters and political system have rejected.

But it was so thoroughly successful as a slogan that a situation has emerged online in which a willingness to embrace it is widely seen as the key sign of one’s commitment to taking complaints about police misconduct seriously.

The reality is just the opposite.


Policing in the United States has serious problems, and the pro-cop “Thin Blue Line” identity politics of the right is only going to make them worse. The way things work today, there is simply too much misconduct — and much too much quiet tolerance of misconduct — and not enough crime-solving. This is a problem that’s urgently in need of solutions, and cutting police budgets by 10 percent to boost social services isn’t going to fix it. What has to happen instead is that bad officers lose their jobs and don’t get rehired in other departments, a measure that would both reduce misconduct directly but also shift cultures. Nothing about this is particularly mysterious or technically difficult to implement.

But just like if you want to replace something in your house that’s broken with something that works better, if you want to improve policing and reduce misconduct, you’re almost certainly going to have to spend more money, rather than less.

The trouble with defunding, briefly

As Jenna Wortham reported in an admiring summer 2020 profile, the Defund Police slogan was popularized by the Black Visions Collective, a small Twin Cities group “with deep ties to queer, immigrant and transgender communities” that benefitted from an unexpected influx of out-of-state money in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Black Visions, like several other prominent left-wing activist groups, favor defunding as part of a larger strategy of abolishing police altogether — a goal that Mariame Kaba clarified for us in her memorably titled op-ed “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish The Police.”

Since this is ridiculous, there’s been a lot of post hoc sanewashing of the slogan, and these days if you go on Twitter and say that you are glad that police officers exist and were able to crush the January 6 insurrection, you’ll get lectured that defund police “really” means that cities should, at the margin, shift financial resources out of policing and into social services.

Since budget situations (and crime!) vary widely from place to place in the United States of America, I’m sure that there are some places where this is true and other places where it is not true. I’m even more sure that rather than embrace this kind of zero-sum thinking, the federal government should provide state and local financial assistance so cities can continue to pay cops and teachers and firefighters and social workers rather than choosing.

But the big problem here is that defunding police does not address the actual problem.

Tamir Rice never should have been shot and killed. Nor should Philando Castile. Eric Garner and George Floyd shouldn’t have been suffocated to death. But none of these are cases of cops being called to respond to situations that should have been dealt with by a social worker. They’re simply cases of police officers behaving with a reckless disregard for human life. And if you listen to Black men from all walks of life talk about their fearful encounters with American policing, I think it’s crazy to come away thinking “well, maybe if we had 10 percent fewer officers it would be fine.”

Or read Zack Beauchamp’s reporting on the troubled culture of American policing. Who wants departments that are just like that, but a bit smaller? That’s crazy. If your city had a bus system where a few times a year a driver is intoxicated on the job, crashed the bus, and kills someone you wouldn’t say “time to cut the bus budget” or “goes to show buses don’t work.” You need bus drivers who do their jobs properly!

How we got here

I think the basic problem is pretty simple:

  • Cops are popular and elected officials generally don't want to be in huge fights with police unions, so they would like to make concessions to the police.

  • Taxes are not popular nor is cutting Medicaid or school funding, so elected officials generally like to find concessions to make that have no obvious financial cost.

The upshot is that all across the country, the tendency is for police officers to have much stronger job security than normal people as a form of non-cash compensation. This is exacerbated by the fact that financial compensation to police officers is heavily weighted toward pension benefits that accrue only after extended service.

  • Cops who are burned out, disgruntled with the communities they serve, or lack respect for the elected officials they are nominally accountable to have strong incentives to stay on the job anyway.

  • Because everyone is in this pension boat, officers’ collective self-interest is very bound-up in nobody’s career being cut short in a way that’s not true in many other lines of work.

There’s a discourse about “a few bad apples” versus a systemic culture problem. But in reality, these are closely linked problems. The point of the metaphor is that leaving rotten apples lying around has a corrosive impact on your larger stockpile of normal apples. And in the United States it is extremely difficult to purge the apples.

It’s really hard to fire a police officer

America’s police chiefs are not a super left-wing group of people; they’re not anti-cop, they’re not hard-core civil libertarians or dévotes of critical race theory or what have you. They’re also not like private sector bosses whose stock options go up if they squeeze the workers. A chief’s incentive is to be liked by the rank-and-file while presiding over falling crime and hopefully no dramatic scandals or high-profile misconduct.

In other words, while I’m sure it has happened in history that a police chief has tried to fire an officer who didn’t deserve it, there’s absolutely no structural reason to think chiefs would be biased toward overly aggressive firings.

Daniel Oates, a veteran police chief in several different smaller American cities, wrote a great op-ed about how difficult this is:

In nearly nine years as chief in Aurora, Colo., I had 16 cops out of 650 whom I felt should be fired. Four I actually did fire. The Civil Service Commission promptly reversed me on three of them. So with the other 12 cops, I bent over backward to negotiate their departures with creative severance packages. I succeeded in getting them out — with deals that protected the city from litigation — but these agreements also allowed the cops to get jobs elsewhere if they could.

The punchline to this is that compared to when he was a chief in Florida, Colorado is a state that makes it relatively easy to dismiss an officer for misconduct.

That’s because Florida, unlike Colorado, has a Police Officers’ Bill of Rights on the books over and above basic union and civil service protections. As Mike Riggs reported back in 2012 for Reason, in “Bill of Rights” states, it’s triply hard to dismiss bad officers because you’re not allowed to use the normal tools of criminal investigation when there are complaints against officers.

Consequently, people known to be serious offenders stay on the force until their crimes escalate:

In the last year, a Florida narcotics detective was charged with a slew of crimes ranging from rape and torture, to embezzlement and forgery; a Virginia police officer shot a retired Sunday school teacher in the back of the head and throat as she drove out of a church parking lot; six California cops beat a homeless man into a life-ending coma; a Milwaukee police officer was arrested for sodomizing suspects; a drunk man slapped a Philadelphia cop, and the cop responded by beating the drunk man's face bloody with his baton.

What do they all have in common? They were all known by their colleagues and employers to be bad cops long before they came to the public's attention.

Waiting for cases of spectacular misconduct to emerge and then prosecuting the offending officers as criminals is a proven failure as a model. Juries, with some pretty good reason, are very reluctant to convict a cop on a murder charge if there’s any ambiguity whatsoever in the situation. The huge, high-profile controversies that ensue are also associated with a lot more crime and murder in their wake.

The solution is to have a higher standard of conduct across the board, narrowing the entire funnel of misconduct and making it clear to the median officer that tolerating bad work is not part of the job. It’s worth emphasizing that under the status quo, it’s not just using excessive force against suspects that’s tolerated — it’s an extremely wide range of misconduct. The sheriff’s deputy in Broward County who failed to do anything to intervene during the Parkland shooting was criticized by basically everyone for failing to do his job. He got fired. And then later reinstated with full back pay and the enthusiastic support of his union.

And while police bureaucracies and their leaders are doubtless imperfect, Stephen Rushin’s review of police discipline appeals processes makes it clear that departments really are trying to some extent to restrain misconduct, and they’re being blocked:

The media has documented similar stories in police departments across the country. For example, in 2007 an Oakland police officer shot and killed an unarmed twenty-year-old man. Only a few months later, the same officer "killed another unarmed man, shooting him three times in the back as he ran away." Oakland paid a $65o,ooo settlement to the family of the deceased man and fired the officer. But during the disciplinary appeals process, an arbitrator ordered Oakland to reinstate the officer and awarded him back pay. Similarly, an arbitrator overruled a decision by the police department in Sarasota, Florida to fire an officer who misled investigators after being caught on camera repeatedly and excessively beating a suspect without justification. And in Washington, DC, police officials fired an officer after his criminal conviction for sexually abusing a teenager in his squad car, only to have an arbitrator order him rehired on appeal.

The situation is so bad that many District Attorney offices maintain something called a Brady list of officers whose past work has been so sloppy or dishonest that their future testimony is likely to be unusable in court. DAs, like police chiefs, are not civil liberties fanatics. It just seems obvious that a cop whose work is literally unusable in a criminal prosecution should be fired.

The prevalence of repeat offenders in brutality cases and special lists of unreliable officers underscores that, as is pretty much always the case with human malfeasance, a majority of the wrongdoing is being perpetrated by a minority of the people. A huge USA Today review of misconduct allegations found that “less than 10 percent of officers in most police forces get investigated for misconduct. Yet some officers are consistently under investigation. Nearly 2,5000 have been investigated on 10 or more charges. Twenty faced 100 or more allegations yet kept their badges for years.”

In terms of reducing abuse, posting ACAB on social media and advocating for arbitrary budget cuts is going to drastically underperform actually identifying the perpetrators of misconduct and purging them.

Budget cuts are not the answer

It is understandable that some people will look at this catalog of dysfunction and decide they are not enthusiastic about investing public resources in these kind of institutions. But I also think it’s not a coincidence that the people most enthusiastic about defunding are young and highly educated — i.e., people with limited lived experience of the much higher crime rate of the 1980s and 1990s and who are relatively insulated from urban violence.

As I’ve written several times, it’s pretty overwhelmingly clear that more cops on the beat means less violent crime. Yet another paper on this came out recently, comparing crime trends in New Jersey’s two largest cities during a period where one of them had big police layoffs and the other didn’t. They found that “police layoffs were associated with significant increases of overall crime, violent crime, and property crime in Newark as compared to Jersey City in the post-layoffs period. Supplemental analyses found the overall crime and violent crime increases become progressively more pronounced each year following the police layoffs.”

Similarly, it turns out that police departments’ success at solving serious violent crimes is strongly related to how many investigative resources are available.

We can hope that the apparent large national increase in homicides in 2020 was a one-off consequence of a weird year. But it might not be. And an era of elevated violence is not a great time to be laying officers off.

But it also just doesn’t really make sense as a solution to the problem. If only 10 percent of officers are generating complaints, then shrinking the force at random is going to generate a much smaller reduction in abusive behavior than specifically looking at the 10 percent and firing some of them. Unfortunately, we are currently polarized between one group of people who says “most officers are great cops” and then proposes either no reform or some weak implicit bias test stuff, and another group of people who say “the whole institutions suffer from systemic problems” and then proposes budget cuts that wouldn’t address the systemic problems. But ultimately you need to address the systemic problem, which is that it’s too hard to get rid of the bad apples.

How to get better policing

One way we got to this stupid place is that while police unions tilt way to the right politically, they have core interests and features that are similar to other public sector unions that tilt to the left.

So while the sanewashed version of “defund the police” may not make sense as an agenda for justice, it does make sense as coalition politics. Less money for right-wing public sector workers and more money for left-wing public sector workers is something that left-wing public sector workers will embrace. By contrast, if you start going after union collective bargaining rights, then you’re going to end up hearing from teachers and librarians and others.

Jacobin, to its credit, has published a bunch of pieces trying to draw a conceptual distinction between unions for police and corrections officers and other kind of labor unions. My view personally is that this is unnecessary. Politics is not governed by the legal system’s emphasis on precedent and neutral principles. If you want to go after police union privileges while leaving other unions untouched, that’s absolutely “allowed.”

The concrete issue is that departments are currently having trouble retaining officers, as the current level of scrutiny and criticism is contributing to a big wave of quits. Already the flip side of it being too hard to fire cops is that when officers do get forced out of departments, they often just bounce to another department nearby because it’s cheaper to hire a veteran officer than to recruit and train a brand new one. Realistically, you don’t just want to fire the worst-behaved officers; you want to build better departments. You don’t want to demoralize the cops you aren’t firing, you don’t want them to quit now that the terms of their compensation have gotten worse, and you want to recruit excellent new officers.

Common sense says that if you have a more diverse police force, you’ll have fewer problems with racialized violence. Unfortunately, some fairly superficial studies tended to not show that result in reality. But this more detailed analysis from Bocar Ba, Dean Knox, Jonathan Mummolo, and Roman Rivera confirms the common sense view:

A history of nearly exclusively white male police forces in the U.S. has made diversifying personnel one of the oldest and most often proposed police reforms, but data challenges have precluded micro-level evaluations of its impact. Using newly collected personnel data and millions of ultra-fine-grained records on officer deployment and behavior, we conduct a detailed quantitative case study of diversity in the Chicago Police Department. We show how officers from marginalized groups are consistently assigned to different working conditions than white and male officers, meaning they typically encounter vastly different circumstances and civilian behaviors. As a result, coarse agency- or district-level analyses often fall short of all-else-equal comparisons between officer groups, making it difficult to disentangle officers behavior from the environments in which they work—a crucial first step in evaluating the promise of diversity reforms. To assess behavioral differences between officers of varying racial, ethnic and gender profiles, we leverage detailed records of daily patrol assignments to evaluate officers against their counterparts working in the same collections of city blocks, in the same month and day of week, and at the same time of day. Compared with white officers facing identical conditions, we show Black and Hispanic officers both make substantially fewer stops, arrests, and use force less often, especially against Black civilians. Much of the gaps in stops and arrests are due to a decreased focus on discretionary contact, such as stops for vaguely defined “suspicious behavior.” Hispanic and white officers exhibit highly similar behavior toward Hispanic civilians, though Hispanic officers who speak Spanish appear to make fewer arrests in general than those who do not speak Spanish. Within all racial/ethnic groups, female officers are substantially less likely to use force relative to male officers. Taken together, these results show the substantial impact of diversity on police treatment of minority communities, and emphasize the need to consider multiple facets of police officers when crafting personnel-driven reforms.

There is also good evidence from Anna Harvey and Taylor Mattia that hiring more Black officers reduces the number of Black crime victims. And Amalia Miller and Carmit Segal find that hiring more female officers reduces intimate partner homicides and the incidence of non-fatal domestic abuse. All told, I think the literature on this paints a picture similar to what Jill Leovy reports in Ghettoside, that there is a positive feedback loop between positive interactions with the civilian population and efficacy in fighting crime.

Better policing will be more expensive

To me, the research all points to a pretty clear reform agenda:

  • Police should be completely stripped of all special procedural rights and investigated with the same investigative tools that they use against anyone else.

  • These arbitration panels should be scrapped; officers should have some basic civil service protection against being fired for no cause at all, but the goal should be to build an effective police force not a sinecure for officers.

  • Compensation structures should feature much higher starting salaries, but not escalate so much over the course of a career. You want way more people to consider a career in policing, but also make it lower stakes to counsel-out someone who finds it frustrating or can’t do the job well.

  • Quitting one department and going to work in another one should be more normalized than it currently is, where officers instead seem to respond to directives they disagree with by acting surly. But officers dismissed for actual misconduct should not just get hired elsewhere as a shortcut.

  • Departments need bigger recruiting budgets to invest in securing high-quality job candidates, including those who are Black, female, or fluent in Spanish or other locally relevant languages.

  • Politicians should acknowledge that when we ask officers to be more restrained with the use of force, we are asking them to take risks with their lives that most people would not want to take and that cops should be compensated accordingly.

  • But politicians should also insist that taking risks for the greater good of the community literally is the job, and officer fear can’t be an all-purpose answer to questions about brutality.

In the aggregate, we should hire more detectives, so non-fatal shootings get investigated as rigorously as fatal ones. There is also a whole bunch of studies that show when cops work long hours, they get tired and generate more use of force problems. Departments should hire more officers both as a means to boost diversity, and simultaneously to dramatically cut down on the reliance on overtime, long shifts, and other fatigue-inducing scenarios. And while putting beat cops on the street reduces crime, aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics appear to have no benefit over and above the basic benefit of the officers being physically present.

You want a large, diverse, well-compensated police force that is staffed to be present in high-crime areas without necessarily doing all that much, and then you want to hold the officers to a high standard of conduct rather than treating the job as make-work. It’s going to be expensive. But both police misconduct and crime itself are much too important to address in stingy ways or with superficial solutions.