Police for America
To fix policing, we need different police
I mentioned in a mailbag, but I think part of the strategy for police reform in the United States should be a “Police for America” program modeled on Teach for America.
In other words, an initiative funded by donors who care about both crime control and social justice to recruit relatively high-performing graduates of selective colleges and place them for a few years as police officers in high-crime, high-poverty cities. I’ve heard proposals to try to make police departments function more like the military with a distinct entry point for people to do investigative or patrol work. But while I think there’s a certain logic to those proposals, that’s not what I have in mind here.
TFA takes entry-level teachers and has them do basically normal entry-level teacher work in the kind of schools that struggle to fill vacancies.
It asks people to take on as an idealistic challenge a job that is socially important but not especially desirable in terms of pay or working conditions. And even though TFA obviously does not solve the profound dilemmas of staffing and managing high-poverty schools, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests it works pretty well on a number of levels. Most immediately, TFA teachers improve student outcomes relative to the available alternative. But TFA alumni often take their combination of selective educational credentials and classroom teaching experience to move into school management or education policy. And while TFA used to be a big hot-button topic in the unions vs. reformer wars, one interesting finding in the literature is that TFA experience shifts people’s policy views closer to the direction of the union/progressive consensus.
I think this is a promising model for an approach to policing that could improve America’s supply of good cops, help shift the culture of police departments, and improve the human capital available for criminal justice reform by creating a corps of reformers who have law enforcement credibility and perhaps a more realistic perspective than a lot of what’s on offer today.
Police reform is hard
Once you get past the fantasy that we can wish policing away or “reimagine” public safety in a way that doesn’t involve guys with uniforms and guns, you’re left with the fact that the policing status quo is bad and also hard to change.
Officers should be held accountable for misconduct — not just the most extreme forms of misconduct, but relatively minor kinds as well. Yet we see chiefs reluctant to fire officers, and officers who do get dismissed bouncing from department to department. And this is at least in part because in many cases it is genuinely not easy to fill vacancies. Meanwhile, many if not most departments seem to have a deeply ingrained warrior mentality that emphasizes dominance rather than service. Policing has become so politicized that the overwhelming majority of officers, even in very liberal areas, are right-wing and often seem to have barely disguised disdain for the citizens they nominally serve, and not-at-all disguised disdain for the politicians elected to run their cities. Over the course of 2020-21, we saw a massive national wave of shootings and murder that seems to have been caused at least in part by a de facto police strike, tacitly organized to (successfully) push back on momentum for reform.
That’s bad on its own terms, and it’s also a ticking time bomb for democracy more broadly.
None of this means that reform is impossible. I recently got to read Neil Gross’ forthcoming book, “Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture,” which is really great and highlights models for success. But this is not like a super simple three-point checklist that any mayor can just go implement. It’s a lot of intensive hard work that hopefully can spread over time.
But this process could be greatly accelerated by getting different kinds of people working in police departments, especially the kind of people who’d likely do well at getting promotions or at going on to hold political office or management roles. And it would also be a healthy shift in this debate if people passionate about change and reform had opportunities to actually do object-level work on policing and perhaps develop more moderate, meliorist views of viable approaches to change.
How Wendy Kopp hacked the meritocracy
For much of American history, a very large share of the country’s most academically talented women were working as K-12 schoolteachers.
This was in many ways a boon to society because skilled K-12 teachers generate positive externalities, but K-12 teaching is also a very labor-intensive industry that doesn’t exhibit significant productivity gains over time. But of course the funneling of so many talented women specifically into this one field reflected much larger injustices in society that were substantially unwound in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. That revolution in women’s labor market opportunities had a lot of good effects, but also really hammered the human capital available to America’s public schools. By 1999, when the academic quality of new teachers bottomed out, 30 percent were coming from the bottom third of the SAT/ACT score distribution.
The recovery since then has involved multiple strands of reform (and yes, paying higher salaries is part of the answer), but Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, devised a clever hack to address the especially difficult problem of the fact that schools with the most for need great teachers are also generally the least desirable ones to work at.
Job choice is heavily influenced by salary, but money isn’t the only factor people consider. Lots of graduates of good schools take relatively low-paying jobs in the nonprofit sector because they are considered high-minded and prestigious. Teaching in a high-poverty school could, in theory, have the same halo; it just didn’t. But if you create a competitive application program with a special brand, then suddenly you have a high-prestige track for doing this high-minded and idealistic thing. And it worked. TFA rapidly became a reasonable thing for ambitious people to apply to because people in the know regarded a TFA line on the resume as a perfectly solid credential.
It’s a cool insight that could and should be applied to other areas of public service.
Unions did not love this idea because it has a vague sense of underbidding the existing pay structure. But in keeping with a large body of research showing that more academically qualified teachers are on average more effective, TFA teachers seem to be pretty good. Lots and lots and lots of well-identified studies show that TFA teachers are more effective than the average inexperienced teacher and about the same (or in some cases better) than veteran teachers. TFA teachers do have somewhat higher rates of long-term attrition than normal teachers (they have better outside options), but compared to peers who just miss the cut for getting into TFA, they are more likely to work in education broadly construed and more racially tolerant. TFA alums are also overrepresented in entrepreneurial education ventures.
So while these are not miraculous results, it is a successful model for both moderately improving the human capital available to the public education system and also for driving larger change in the system. And one interesting thing about that is that even though TFA is on the “reform” side of the union vs. reformers wars, TFA alumni shift toward union views on things like school choice vs. wraparound services as the key to improving outcomes for poor kids.
And I think that’s a strength of the program. It helps deliver some reform work (especially via the entrepreneurial channel) and somewhat depolarizes the issue — creating a corps of reformers who have the credibility of former classroom teachers — while also recognizing that the teachers themselves have some important and valid insights. And my hope would be that we could generate some similar effects in the policing space.
Why not be the change you want to see?
Right now, very few people with progressive values or any qualms about the status quo in the criminal justice system are willing to consider a career in policing. But that dynamic is only going to make everything people worry about in policing even worse. We’re both exacerbating ideological selection into and out of policing, and also making general staffing problems harder. This only makes chiefs more reluctant to dismiss bad cops and more likely to accept retreats who’ve washed out for misconduct elsewhere.
If we accept that policing is important and that high-poverty, high-crime communities want to see policing improved rather than defunded, it would be more constructive to create a program that challenges people who believe policing can be done better to actually roll up their sleeves and do it.
There’s a good amount of evidence (most recently summed up in the Obama-era Task Force on 21st Century Policing) that better-educated police officers are better across a variety of dimensions — they use force less and engage in more “problem-oriented” policing. This is sometimes taken as a reason to encourage departments to require college degrees or create financial incentives for getting them. Realistically, though, creating a degree requirement is only going to make personnel shortages worse, and a crude financial incentive is going to lead to people enrolling in low-value programs just to get a raise.
Police for America would address the same issue from the opposite direction, creating a centralized mechanism for increasing the supply of educated officers available to work in high-poverty communities. I think it’s safe to assume that PFA cops, like TFA teachers, would have above-average rates of medium-term attrition. But the ones who don’t leave policing would be disproportionately likely to secure promotion. And many of the ones who do leave policing would still work in adjacent fields and would bring practical police experience to bear on careers in law, policy, journalism, and politics. You’d get cultural change inside police departments via the entry of different kinds of people, and also a criminal justice reform community that was operating across less of a conceptual void from the people doing police work.
The recent drive to elect “progressive prosecutors” who often hire people with public defender experience into DA offices is also a partial precedent. There’s been backlash to this trend, and some of the new progressive prosecutors aren’t going to work out (Chesa Boudin is already gone), but others have secured reelection and I think will have successful careers. Part of that success is going to be delivering reforms that people want to see. But part of it is going to be learning to marry reform impulses with the practical need to deliver public safety.
I have some criticisms of PP trends (the inclination you see in some places to treat illegal gun possession as a non-violent crime unworthy of serious punishment seems like a big mistake to me), but the basic idea that reformers should actually take on criminal justice work and try to do it better is correct. The idea came to prosecutors first because lawyering is more of a high-prestige occupation than policing. But that’s why TFA seems like a promising model — you can really create prestige out of thin air with a little money, savvy, and media hype.
You missed, as far as I can tell, one key point: by getting a bunch of well-educated kids, many of whom are likely going to end up in the progressive wing of the Democrats, to do something like this…
You’re going to create a medium-sized constellation of driven people within the coalition who support fixing policing but also have an understanding of the realities, sympathy for the people who do the job, and at least a decent idea of what reforms can and can’t work.
This is something that the progressive left just clearly does not have at present.
TL;DR: the important mechanism will be to change the progressive movement, not the police.
Counterpoint: a TFA model for policing could be a really really bad idea! TFA gives "elite" grads a crash course over the summer in teaching instruction and then throws them into the high poverty areas. Failures in teaching are relatively low profile, while an analogous policing failure would be all over the news. It's pretty easy to imagine a 20-something Yale grad (hi, Milan!) shooting a minority at a traffic stop and it turning into a national story. And policing probably relies a bit more on camaraderie than teaching does (not that teaching doesn't, but you're not in a classroom with another teacher all day long). What happens when the existing police officers start hanging the PFA kids out to dry? Again, pretty easy to imagine.