That incentives matter is a core kernel of debate between libertarians and Lefties (ok, and everyone else). They matter in police reform, and they explain why politicians have an incentive to maintain the status quo on the chronic problems they are elected to address.

Let’s examine policing incentives, one involving a moment in time, to the incentives apparent in shaping nationwide patterns of policing behavior:

At the granular level, we have a national argument around an(other) infamous police killing of a person of color in Atlanta . Yes, once the man turned and fired the taser at the officers, it was legitimate to shoot him down.

Legitimate, but avoidable. Avoidable is where the incentive comes in.

A factor that must be appreciated, if we are to have an informed approach to reforming police conduct, is that in any fight with an officer, a gun is in play (the officer’s). If they lose the fight, they lose control of their gun, and it may mean their life. The officer has the same inherent human right to [protect themselves as everyone else. So, it follows that it must be illegal to resist their arresting orders. If their orders are illegitimate, strong checks on their power are needed. Arrest should also be only for something truly important.

Incidentally, the pro-police voices in the argument point to the obviously political decision to fire the officer before his due process as a case-in-point as to why they need strong unions to protect them from a sacrifice to politics.

Where we see the perverse policing incentive causing the perverse outcome of an avoidable death was the moment the officers had the chance to let the man walk home, but instead decided to arrest him. True, the officers have a duty to protect the community from his driving drunk, but they could have done that by allowing him to walk away, and everyone’s life would have been protected (they would have needed to tow his car). This situation is utterly mundane for we medics. Get them in a cab, and if they refuse, then bring in the police. I’ve done it hundreds of times. My suspicion is that the officers had a productivity requirement, and an arrest for a DWI would have checked off a productivity box.

The “making productivity” theory is born out in an fascinating study of drug arrests, which shows that police forces all over the country seem incentivized to focus on arresting large numbers of people for small amounts of illegal drugs, rather than try to tackle the drug problem at its source. A perceptive student of the drug war (from a pro drug-war perspective), might point out that the drug war is a failure because the problem is no longer being attacked at the root, only at the wild-weed level, which never solves any pest issue. Of course, the argument that arresting a drug addict, once addicted, to deter them from the drugs they are addicted to, is nonsense on its face, which can never yield any success. Success seems only to come in the gaming of police activity, by cultivating the weeds for the harvest, to justify the work of the farmers. David Simon saw this pattern play out when he was a Baltimore Police beat reporter, going as far back in the late 1980s, which he wrote The Wire to illustrate.

For more, here is a link to a documentary about a lawsuit involving NYPD Officers (of color) charging that the NYPD requires them to create productivity through a quota system.

If the police have a productivity goal in the context of lots of crime, that goal is benign (beneficial, even): taxpayers want the police out catching crooks. But if they have quotas in an environment of little crime (other nations are closing jails), and they are creating crimes, and doing it disproportionately to communities of color, than that is creating kindling, which is now alight in the national fire over police policy. Of course, politically connected communities (i.e. white ones), would never lie down to allow themselves to be made into such “products.” That’s where the racism comes in.

If we said green grocers are incentivized to get the most vegetables for the least money, and then sell them to the most people, for the most money, that would be a Captain Obvious commercial. If we say that a police officer’s uniform generates no magic power to change the basic nature of Man (incentives matter), we are caught in an apparently unbreakable loop of “Pro Police” vs “Defund the Police.”

We libertarians point out that perverse incentives bring perverse outcomes.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


Like this post?