A “police surge”?

Why not stimulate the economy (and protect poor urban minorities) by hiring a bunch of cops?

William Stuntz of Harvard Law School tries to sell conservatives on the idea of spending Federal dollars to protect poor, largely black, city-dwellers from crime. Ignore the ritual denunciation of “wasteful government spending” that defaces the beginning of the article. (Naturally, Stuntz doesn’t mention any actual, y’know, wasteful spending or anything; the adjective simply goes with the noun, independent of context, like a Homeric epithet.) The rest of is terrific, and makes the crucial point that policing trades off against imprisonment.

Fun facts I hadn’t been aware of before reading Stuntz’s piece:

1. The incarceration rate among African Americans is now higher than the incarceration rate in the USSR at the peak of the Gulag.

2. We’ve gone from having twice as many police as prison inmates to having twice as many prison inmates as police. Very bad trade.

Under-policing in high-crime minority neighborhoods makes a mockery of the idea of “equal protection of the laws.” It’s much safer to victimize someone in South LA than in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills. That ought to be considered a major civil rights issue.

Stuntz mourns the fact that the stimulus bill only had about a billion dollars’ worth of policing in it. (He doesn’t consider the possibility that state governments will choose to spend some of their stimulus money helping out the localities.) I agree that that’s a disappointment, though it should be considered that expanding police forces (as opposed to avoiding police layoffs) is not a “shovel-ready” activity: it takes much more than a year from deciding to hire more cops, to scheduling an exam, scoring the exam, doing the rest of the screening, making offers, and scheduling a class at the police academy, before anyone new is actually on the payroll.

And then it’s another couple of months before the new cops are on the street. And there’s a limit on how quickly an agency can add rookies without either sacrificing quality or losing control: the ratio of experienced to inexperienced cops has to stay high. So a “surge” would have to happen in slow motion.

All that said, the substantive case for more policing is solid, and of course Stuntz is right to say that the localities that need it most have the least capacity to pay for it out of their own tax bases before they start to lose higher-income residents and businesses. Since the first stimulus bill contained no more than half the effective dose of stimulative spending, I’m confident that we will be seeing a second round sometime in the not too distant future; here’s hoping that policing gets its share that time.

Politically, of course, if Republicans had really believed in law and order they could easily have had as much police spending as they liked in the first package, but they were too busy moaning about wastefulgovernmentspending. And liberals still seem to regard policing as somehow a conservative priority to be balanced off against “crime prevention” through social programs, rather than as a primary unmet need of the people liberals purport to care most about. This seems to me an obvious opportunity for Barack Obama and Eric Holder.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com