I am not in the “defund the police” camp, at least not the one hewing to the literal definition of “defund”, but I am deeply sympathetic to their frustrations and positively horrified by what I have witnessed in recent weeks both in the news and up close in person. I wholeheartedly agree that incremental reforms will fail to solve systemic issues and I dread the time honored tradition of governments everywhere of throwing more money at massive, bloated, broken systems.
As a software engineer specializing in systems integration I can tell you that a total system rewrite represents a nightmarish proposition for numerous reasons. And what is the United States’ patchwork of laws and policies if not a several trillion line piece of software written over a quarter millennium by millions of people who had not heard of the virtues of modules or the evils of GOTO and never got around to writing any unit tests? Nonetheless we need the boldness of a radical rethink, the patience to take it gradually, and the grit to see it through.
I propose an holistic approach with the following facets:
- Raise All Voices
- Establish Layered Approaches
- Break Poverty Cycles
- Curtail Patronage Systems
- Improve Transparency
- Enforce Accountability
Raise All Voices
We have built in the US an electoral system characterized by polarization and marginalization. This drives our increasingly receiving only two options that are largely disappointing for everyone. Furthermore many of the underpinning problems will prove incredibly hard to resolve due to a lock-in effect wherein incumbents control the system’s architecture and lack motivation to change it. You won’t, for instance, ever convince Republicans to abolish the electoral college and thereby unleash California’s population on a popular vote, and consolidating your power through gerrymandering is just too tempting to pass up.
But what if we at least instituted Instant Runoff Voting? That would not instantly upend the established order, but it would in the short-term allow people to express more nuanced preferences than Red-or-Blue, in the medium-term render a wider array of candidates eligible for federal campaign funding, and in the long-term allow more people to vote for candidates instead of parties. And unlike in earlier times we now have the technology for automated vote counting that eliminates concerns around practicality.
It’s simple, really. Just let everyone rank their preferences instead of picking their favorite and then run the IRV algorithm. That’s it. Nobody has to worry about throwing away their vote and yet we can stop throwing away the useful information that is everyone’s ranked preferences.
Establish Layered Approaches
We are habitually over-extending and misapplying policing resources by expecting them to do everything. This results in sub-optimal outcomes, needless risk, staggering expense, and vicious cycles. To look at many cities’ budgets it becomes apparent that we by and large have only a hammer and we are treating every social problem as if it were a nail. This has to stop.
Police should generally not be the first responders in matters of homelessness, mental health, drug abuse, and domestic disputes. Our prisons should not be the default route for people struggling with many such situations. Nonetheless this appears to be the architecture we habitually adopt.
The ideal cop is equal parts soldier, detective, and social worker, and perhaps those people do exist, but we’re not any more likely to get police departments consisting entirely of unicorns as we are in any other profession. We need specialized professionals working within a layered and collaborative architecture.
Let’s try harder to have initial engagements involve EMTs and social workers and route people to hospitals, mental health providers, homeless shelters, and treatment programs when possible. Let’s escalate gradually when necessary through unarmed police, lightly armed police, and heavily armed police, the latter representing a minority of the total force by putting an end to the mass funneling of surplus military gear to police departments (the “S” in “SWAT” is supposed to mean “Special”, not “Standard”). Let’s responsibly create a distributed system for preventing wanton violent crime through pervasive private gun ownership characterized by quality training, lightweight licensing, fewer restrictions on carry, mental health awareness, and strict penalties for crimes committed with guns.
Break Poverty Cycles
Let’s end The War On Drugs and the massive web of terrible consequences it engenders. The US not only spends a staggering amount of money on this ill-conceived activity but also forgoes an enormous amount of potential tax revenues, both of which represent opportunity costs for investments in social programs that could address the root causes of poverty and violence. The scope of this activity also implies a massive policing footprint that amplifies the likelihood of an assortment of bad outcomes. Its nature means that people are consuming dangerous products at inflated prices in a workflow that often starts with petty property crime, typically generates revenue for organized crime, regularly results in medical disaster, habitually breaks up families, pervasively incarcerates people at great expense, and tragically prevents people from being productive members of society.
Let’s instead create an ecosystem where drugs are legal, affordable, safe, and taxed. Let’s not only leverage those new tax revenues on social programs but do the same with the reclaimed policing budgets. We can pour some of those dollars into education and treatment programs for people struggling with addiction. The rest can go into an array of social programs that empower people to claw their own way out of generational poverty. We can start by ensuring that every child goes to a high quality preschool to get proper socialization during those most crucial early years. We should also ensure that no child suffers the agony of living in a food desert that leaves them unable to focus on their studies.
Curtail Patronage Systems
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”
— President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address
Industries that grow up around governmental problem spaces have a nasty tendency to reinforce outcomes that amplify the perception of their own necessity. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than the Prison Industrial Complex. Within this ecosystem private companies administer contracts worth billions of dollars annually. The existence of such lucrative opportunities in turn inevitably generates a lobbyist cadre who will do anything to protect it. And what better way to keep the prison system profitable than to pack it with individuals swept up in The War On Drugs generation after generation? Mix that in with a system that incarcerates Black people at five times the per capita rate of White people and hires out prisoners as cheap quasi-forced labor and you have something that sounds like slavery with extra steps.
We need to crush this system. We can do it by decriminalizing a wide array of non-violent crimes, by taking a more phased and specialized approach to how the government engages with citizens, and by dramatically rolling back a private sector that profits by ruining lives and sending the bill to taxpayers. Our creation and maintenance of this hell on earth is morally unconscionable and fiscally insane.
Better data should serve as the bedrock of better policing. Body cameras are a good start but only a small piece of the puzzle and really only serve as a deterrent for flagrantly bad behavior. We need standard data formats for all manner of policing telemetry, reliable collection of this data across all policing activities, severe penalties for habitually skirting collection requirements, and centralized databasing of this information for both trend analysis and actuarial functions. This data needs to be available to the general public not just for blatant cases of misconduct but rather for everyday goings on so that we can root out subtle and insidious bias and abuse.
To riff on NNT‘s mantra from Skin In The Game I propose a similar one in this problem space:
Don’t tell me what you think about your cops. Show me their liability insurance policies.
I loved my time working for the government but certainly one of my greatest frustrations there was the extreme difficulty in removing problematic employees and contractors from the system. Civilian employees could generally at most be sidelined, not fired, for fear of expensive wrongful termination suits. Contractors could not meaningfully be vetted for competence or appraised for performance by civilian employees for fear of corruption charges. If you were a hard-charging individual trying to get things done the best you could do was elbow the deadwood out of your local ecosystem but it rarely exited the larger pool. Over time this leads to massive bloat. Perhaps the only way to deal with this is to squeeze budgets to force people to make hard choices and back up their decisions with meaningful performance data.
While money can fuel corruption, greed, and destruction in a poorly configured system, it can serve as a powerful tool for accountability in a well constructed one, and within our policing ecosystem we are grossly under-utilizing it in that fashion for a variety of maddening reasons. Let’s change that.
Let’s put an end to the way that Qualified Immunity works in this country. In its place let’s require that all police officers carry some form of Professional Liability Insurance, underpin the formulation of those policies with the aforementioned policing telemetry, inflate the pay of all officers of a given kind by a fixed amount, and use those inflated expenses to capture the true cost of deploying officers into various situations.
The better a given cop’s performance record is, the smaller the out-of-pocket expense for their policy will be, and in concert with a fixed subsidy from the department they in effect end up with a data-driven performance bonus. The worse a given department performs, the more inflated the cost of all such policies will be, which will drive socially normative behavior by good cops who don’t want to bear the cost of bad cops. In the case of cops with consistently poor records the data and finances will speak for themselves and the individual can be terminated without rancor. And with the requirements for liability insurance and the related data being managed in a common fashion as stipulated by national regulation the bad cops can’t be laundered from department to department and thereby avoid meaningful accountability.
Meanwhile, the more accurately the true expense of a police officer gets measured, the more likely governments are to deploy the best suited government agents into a given situation. Don’t want to bear the liability risk of unnecessarily sending an armed cop into an assortment of situations? Send in an EMT or social worker as the first responder. Feel too expensive to sustain a grinding war with a local disenfranchised population now that you’re paying the true cost of policing operations? Stop treating your fellow citizens as enemy combatants. Build better community relations and solve long term problems by pouring money into ensuring that schools have proper HVAC systems, clean water, nutritious food, and qualified teachers.
Let’s solve the root problems with the right tools in an efficient and humane fashion. Because why not?
Editor’s Note: My favorite typo when doing a final proof of this piece was… “We can pour some of those dollars into education and treatment programs for people struggling with addition.” This works on so many levels I was tempted to leave it.