Are the libertarians right about urban police contracting?

One of my favorite colleagues, Peter Gordon (economist), edited a very interesting book a few years ago with David Beito (historian) Alex Tabarrok called The Voluntary City. There are parts of this book I like a lot. It’s thought-provoking.

I’ve been mulling over ideas about policing since Price’s Black Lives Matter event last year. One of the panelists, I believe it was the gentleman from ICAN, suggest that police reform was futile. We should just eliminate the police, as policing traditions in the US, combined with US laws, are racist from the root all the way down the vine.

The idea lodged with me, and it’s become more important in my thinking since the rise of ICE with President Trump, and how quickly they sought to take advantage of their political salience (granted by himself) to expand their methods and hegemony. James Buchanan would be impressed. Monopoly control over the use of violence selectively empowers institutions like police forces to use their societal power to protect themselves rather than protect society. Now, I get it. There are great police officers. I have some in my class–like, literally, Superman levels of service commitment and moral decency. (Love you guys).

The Voluntary City has a section on contracted police forces in history. They are a bit romanticized; hiring poorly trained, profit-seeking security forces can wind up in a very dystopian place; that is, in fact, some of the legacy of police forces in the US remaining from slave patrols. The Progressive Era notion was that we clean up police forces and bureaucracies through training and codes of conduct.

Yet, I can kinda see a 21st century version of contracted security. Tied to specific neighborhood associations, we would very likely not have police unions as they are, which as much as it hurts me to say it, do quite a bit of harm even as they work to protect their members (I say this will a heavy heart: police officers as labor deserve protection, too, but let’s get real. I believe in tenure, too, but I know people who abuse it even if I don’t think I do (and lots and lots of my colleagues don’t.) Bad apples and incompetents are everywhere. Wally from Dilbert wouldn’t be funny if he weren’t so readily identifiable and true, and those bad apples and incompetents can cause a great deal of harm to everybody, including their fellow officers.)

It could also break the chain of loyalty and reciprocity between District Attorneys offices and police forces. When they both work for City X, those ties are mutually reinforcing and detrimental to those who seek justice for police homicides. But if it’s DA from City X and Officer from Neighborhood Association Q, that’s a potentially different story. I know there would be politics and wealth involved, always are, but let’s just keep thinking for a second. I’ve always wondered why local DAs were in charge of police homicides–makes no sense. Take it to the federal level and give everybody a (slightly more) even field.

The OTHER thing that might change could be cities handing out multi-million dollar settlements to families of police homicide victims. That’s comparatively financially painless to the people dropping a dime on somebody like Eric Garner. It spreads the costs across millions of people, and the cost disappears into the comprehensive ocean of municipal insurance and budgets. With small neighborhood associations, those settlements would *hurt* all but the richest locations. You’d get a lot less interested in violent enforcement for stupid crap like some guy selling loosies if you are really on the hook for how your agent handles the situation.

Of course, it’s likely that some places would be able to afford well-trained, elite officers and other places couldn’t. But in places that can’t, you could imagine that they might develop talent among their local group. And even if rich places kept their officers to themselves, they wouldn’t send them rolling all over impoverished neighborhoods based on broken windows ideas. (They won’t pay to police elsewhere). If police really do do more harm than good in Black communities, then it wouldn’t be a tragedy if rich places hired their police and left impoverished places to police themselves and work with their own people. (What would Hobbes say about that??)

It’s of course a big question whether the police do more harm than good in various neighborhoods, and I do not have the answer, I’m afraid. On the one hand, I could see the libertarian contracting approach promoting a dystopian hellscape, similar to where we start with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

But what if Rousseau is right instead of Hobbes?

Before anybody accuses me of trolling or bad faith (one of my pet peeves) you should probably grok the point of this blog: to think through ideas I may or may not really get, to sort arguments, to explore data, etc. I’m sorry: I see multiple sides to just about every issue (except abuse), wrought by a good education and critical mind. I’m not trying to make you change your mind. I’m trying to share thoughts. Dispense with them if you don’t find them useful.

One thought on “Are the libertarians right about urban police contracting?

  1. Very interesting thoughts. Ron Oakerson’s work on the organization of metropolitan governance focuses on lot on law enforcement and the respective levels different components should be governed/management. One of his points was that research (from the 1970s, 1980s at least) suggested that neighborhood policing should be managed at the neighborhood level. Other functions, like homicide investigations could be at a district level and forensics at a regional level. This framework would allow neighborhoods to contract with law enforcement services and tailor them to their local needs. A little creative local financing and decentralization of governance could accomplish this.

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