There are three open questions regarding police abuse and corruption:
1) How much is there?
2) What are the mechanisms underlying it?
3) What are the policy options for mitigating it?
This is a subject I have much interest in and have been researching for over a decade. I am still interested in the first two questions, but it’s increasingly difficult to invest in any conversation that doesn’t immediately contribute to how we are going to mitigate the problem.
This story of Hamilton County, Tennessee is a pure, unadulterated nightmare. We don’t want to make policy off a single nightmarish department or event, but there is nothing isolated or unique about this story. Bad officers migrate to other departments or are simply re-hired by their old one. Bad departments are rarely shut down. Bad sheriffs get re-elected. For large departments, “internal affairs” serve as the de facto monitors, but they are both part of larger social network of law enforcement and also shunned by the an insular sub-network of street officers. Both municipal police and sheriffs’ unions work tirelessly to solve the collective action problem for their members, but in doing so also provide the institutional capital that ensures that members are insulated from any form of accountability. Police take care of their own.
None of this is a new problem – “Who will watch the watchmen” has been a political puzzle since the advent of political thought. What is increasingly clear, though, is that the institutions we have in place for monitoring local law enforcement are largely impotent, either because they’ve always have been or because they’ve become obsolete. Internal and mutual monitoring i.e. “the watchmen watch themselves” only works when the individuals in question are unable to solve their collective action problem, in this case collectively preventing the reporting of misconduct by fellow officers. I regret to inform you that the police have solved their collective action problem.
There is arguably (and I would argue it) no one in our society less likely to be punished for committing an act of violence against another human being than a police officer. I don’t view that as an inflammatory or even particularly normative claim. That’s a reality, and it may in fact even be a welfare enhancing one i.e. maybe someone has be endowed with additional coercive force relative to most citizens. But I think the specific power of police is something well beyond simple “coercion”.
I am hard pressed to think of any occupation with more unwitnessed discretionary power than police officers. Judges may have more power, but they sit on benches in public courtrooms in front of an audience when they exercise their power. All regulatory power occurs via documentation. Political power eventually has to pass through the prism of public governance. Economic power comes via reward and deprivation, but is always constrained by the opportunity of individuals to exit the relationship. You can always move out on a bad landlord or quit a terrible job, but there’s no swapping out for the better officer when one’s got you pinched.
Police officers often exercise their power one-on-one, away from prying eyes, in settings where they themselves serve as the primary witness of record. They have the discretion to not just bear witness to a crime, but to establish its very event, and in doing so start a chain of events that will change how every institution in society treats a person for the rest of their life. They have the power to constrain a person physically, the power to kill, all in a context absent any external monitoring.
You might be imagining a story in an alley or in the back of a squad car, but a holding cell or interrogation room can be a far lonelier place when the only other potential witnesses are other officers. What little doubt a single officer’s testimony may carry is completely washed away by the matching depositions of multiple officers. If the story comes down to you versus them, you’re going to lose.
So I’ll say it again: police officers are endowed with more unobserved discretionary power than any other occupation in our society.
It’s time for significant resources to be invested in monitoring local law enforcement, and it needs to be made permanent. This can’t a be priority that lives at the whim of the Presidential election cycle. This can’t just be an ad hoc prioritization that manifests case-by-case and is largely driven by news coverage. Monitoring of local law enforcement needs to become a permanent feature of our federal bureaucracy. Whether that means creating an independent agency, a subset of the FBI, or a reappropriation of the labor in capital currently being wasted in the Drug Enforcement Agency, I don’t know.
Trust in local police is so low that “Defund the police”, an idea whose foolishness is only matched by its political naivete, actually got off the ground as an idea. That’s where we are at as a society: we have so little trust in the providers of law and order, a core good so central to the very idea of government it shows up in frontier towns before just about anything else, that people were open to appeals to simply live without law enforcement. That’s…that’s not good.
There is all kinds of really good research into what can be done to restore trust in the police. Training reforms, procedural justice, body-worn cameras, (ahem) public finance reforms, just to name a tiny few. These are all good ideas, but maybe we should also consider recommitting to our core belief that policing works, that monitoring and punishing people who break the law deters others from doing so. If we really believe it works for private citizens, then it might just work for the police.
In fact, I think already nailed it two paragraphs ago. Let’s rename the DEA the Department of External Affairs. We’re legalizing narcotics one drug at a time and these people will need jobs, right (I’m only 41% kidding)? We can have a Watchman “Czar” (they watch the watchmen, get it?). They can have tip lines. There can be informants in bad police departments, court ordered wire taps. They can seize resources from corrupt departments. They can keep doing all the things they’ve been doing, but instead of drug smugglers they can track abusive officers skipping across state lines from job to job, bust corrupt sheriffs, and occasionally seize the odd speed boat. If you’re going to be endowed with a badge and a gun, with the ability to pull a person out of their life and threaten to render moot every plan they ever had, then it seems only fair that you know someone might be watching you.
To add a bit a self-important context to this suggestion, please know that advocating for the establishment of federal agencies is far from my default solution. I know that the US government is littered with departments and agencies that do little but drag down the efficient expenditure of resources, inch by inch eroding the credibility of the public enterprise. Part of the promise of federalism is not just pushing local goods down the government hierarchy, but pushing national goods up. Not since the Civil Rights Movement has it been more clear that local law enforcement is in crisis. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s office, the Ferguson police department, these are no longer local problems. Each story of tragedy and abuse chips away at the broader reputation of law enforcement across the country and we are all less safe for it. Nor are they dependent on tacit local knowledge or relationships– quite the contrary, local relationships are likely to inhibit proper monitoring through either personal loyalty, collective intimidation, or being outright complicit.
The law enforcement crisis has been become a national problem. A federal problem. It’s time to treat it like one.