When policing doesn't pay

Some problems could be better addressed by private entities (at least in part)


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      These days, much emphasis is placed on cutting budgets. While cuts are painful, Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing Inc. (POP Center), agrees police budgets rise and fall, mirroring the general economy — but says there's more to the story.

   Scott describes there also is a constant push and pull as new demands are made of the police. He gives examples: Going back to the mid-19th century, police commonly provided various social services. Viewed as local government agents able to do whatever needed, the police ran homeless shelters, operated ambulances and cleaned streets. In the 1930s, the police began pushing back, saying they couldn't be effective if they tried to be all things to all people. They argued they needed to focus on the core mission — law enforcement and crime fighting. They tried systematically to get themselves out of all other functions until the 1970s, when they expanded their function to help the community. They began running youth recreation programs, helping with neighborhood cleanups teaching in schools, and more.

   "To some extent, 'What do we want the police to do?' is a never-settled question," says Scott, a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "You might conclude that police ought to be doing more with respect to one problem. With respect to another problem, you might say the police ought to be doing less and somebody else ought to be doing more."

   Today's economy should compel agencies to rethink the public's expectations of police service. Sometimes police managers don't understand that if they spend resources doing A, B and C, they might not be able to do D, E and F. If the latter would actually be more productive, create a better crime prevention value and a safer community, Scott says. "You have to ask: 'How do we get out of doing A, B and C?' " Could someone other than the police take on the responsibility (or at least part) and be more effective at it?

Economic analysis

   One issue almost always raised is who should bear the cost of a problem. Should the cost be borne primarily by police responding to crimes or should the cost be borne by businesses and private entities taking crime prevention measures?

   When the two sides cannot agree, Scott says an economic analysis of the matter is often helpful. This analysis can reveal the efficiencies and inefficiencies of different approaches to addressing a problem. It's not that economic analysis must always prevail, he notes. Problem-oriented policing encourages various kinds of problem analysis. He says, parties should ask: "Who can achieve the desired result more economically?"

   Economic analysis could and maybe should be routine, but Scott says it seldom is, suggesting one reason for that is there are deeply held assumptions about the role of the police. Because the police are public, he says: "It's very easy and natural for people in businesses to say, 'We pay tax dollars for the police to do their job. That entitles us to have the police do certain things like respond to crimes when they happen.' "

   Since the cost of the police is spread out among taxpayers, there's a sense that the financial burden is being evenly shared by the community. It strikes some people as unfair when police suggest one sector of society (like banks or convenience stores, for example) should bear some of the costs, when they are the crime victims. At some level, there's an intuitive argument that says police are supposed to help victims, not make them pay.

   Yet an analysis of crime problems shows crime typically does not spread evenly throughout a community; rather it is heavily concentrated in a few places. Why then should the whole community have to pay for arguably the neglect or bad practices of a relatively small number of businesses or citizens?

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