17 September 2014

Police, Heroism, and the Consequences of Mistaken Attitudes

Stephen Kershnar
The Consequences of Mistaken Attitudes about the Police
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 15. 2014

There are a trio of mistaken ideas about the police in the U.S. and these ideas result in bad policies.

Two mistaken ideas about the police are that it is an especially dangerous job and that there are far too few officers. As a result of the perceived danger and perilously thin blue line, the Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches without probable cause or a warrant has to be cut back. Also, because the police are outgunned and undermanned, there has to be an increasingly aggressive style of policing, the most extreme being military-style SWAT teams and no-knock raids. A third mistaken idea is that police officers are heroes in a way that truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers are not. As a result, any attempt to cut their benefits to the level of teachers and other government workers or their numbers is beyond the pale.  

First, the notion that a police officer is an especially dangerous job in part explains why police officers are, in some circumstances, allowed to search the cab of a car, an arrestee, pedestrians thought to have weapons, and so on without probable cause or a warrant. Officer safety was cited as a reason that police should be able to search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant. Fortunately, the Supreme Court didn’t buy it.  

Concern for officer safety also, in part, explains the growing militarization of the police. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Radley Balko points out that that Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were relatively rare in the 1970’s and have become distressingly common. In 1975, he notes, there were only 500 such units. By the early 1980’s, 13% of mid-sized towns (between 25,000 and 50,000) had such teams, by 2005 80% did. Similarly, in the early 1980’s, SWAT teams conducted 3,000 raids a year, by 2005, they were doing 50,000 raids per year. Balko reports that over recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants to police departments, much of it to purchase military gear. The Pentagon has also been doling out military equipment by the hundreds of millions.

It is hard to see what justifies this fast-growing militarization and related military tactics such as no-knock raids. The crime rate (including violent crime) is significantly lower than it was in the 1970’s. Nor are police outgunned. For example, only a tiny fraction of homicides in the U.S. are committed with military-grade weapons.

Contrary to one of the underlying justifications of these searches and militarization, being a police officer is not an especially dangerous job. According to 2013 Bureau of Labor statistics, farmers, truck drivers, pilots, roofers, construction workers, and power line workers face a greater chance of death at work and yet they don’t have a reputation for facing down death. When police officers do get killed, it is more often in a traffic-related accident than by a gun.  

Nor are the police undermanned. The rate of police officers per citizen is on the low side by worldwide standards. However, writing in The New York Times, Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev point out that the U.S. leads the world in protective service employees (police officers, private security guards, correction officers, members of the military, and so on). Many of these jobs supplement officers’ services.

This issue matters because protecting officers’ jobs in part explains why civil forfeiture proceedings (the lion’s share goes to local cops and prosecutors) against allegedly dirty money (not dirty people) have become big business. This also explains in part why traffic tickets and warrants related to them have become shockingly common in some parts of the country (for example, around Saint Louis, Missouri).

A related notion is that police are heroes in a way in which farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers are not and hence their numbers and benefits dare not be cut. A hero is someone who makes a great sacrifice to benefit others and whose effort is reasonable.

It is unclear that police officers make sacrifices that farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers don’t make. As mentioned above, those other jobs face a greater risk of death. Farmers make more money than do the police, truck drivers and construction workers make less, but the comparisons are hard to make because the police get generous retirement benefits that the others don’t. For example, writing in The New York Times, Joseph Berger points out that a New York City police officer is eligible to retire after 20 years and most do retire upon hitting that milestone. The retirement benefits start up right away and are paid out even when a former officer gets another full-time job. Farmers and construction workers can only dream of such a deal.   

Nor is it obvious that police officers are more motivated by altruism than are other workers. People tend to take jobs that fit their preferences. Being a police officer might involve higher pay and fewer hours than being a farmer, but more conflict and distasteful tasks (for example, handing out tickets). There is no one answer as to whether one set of job features is better than another, instead, this differs between people. Different preferences are what lead people to sort themselves out into different jobs.

Even the reasonable benefit condition is not obvious. While it is clear that deterring violence and property crime is good for society, locking up large numbers of people for victimless crimes such as drugs likely makes the American people worse off. For example, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rate and total number of people incarcerated (it has 25% of the world’s prisoners). This is not good for a free people.   

The hero status has led in part to a hesitation to cut the number of positions or compensation for first responders (police and firefighters) in a way similar to how other government employees’ numbers and pay has been cut. Contaminating the discussion of these issues with the “hero” label certainly does not help.   

Like farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers, the police perform a valuable service. I doubt they want their job mythologized any more than they want their children to lose liberty because of the mythologies.

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