Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Good Cops vs. Bad SWATs

I had the following email exchange with Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution, which I thought readers might find interesting. Here’s what I wrote to Alex:
I notice that you linked Radley Balko's SWAT study today. After reading your post yesterday in which you voiced support for hiring more cops, I was thinking of sending you the link to Balko's study. I'm wondering if you see any tension between your position and Balko's findings. My take: The sort of policing that really reduces violent crime (whose efficacy is shown by your own and others' research) is probably not the sort of policing that Balko rightly condemns. But for public choice reasons, we should be very wary of supporting increased police funding, because we have no guarantee that the funds won't be diverted to SWAT-style anti-drug policies instead of good policing.

In other words: I'd support greater funding for police work if it didn't have so many negative externalities in the current system.
Alex replied:
Yeah, I was wondering whether people would pick that up! My general view on all these kinds of issue is to take one problem at a time and on that problem always go for first best. Thus more cops and less war on drugs but not fewer cops as a way of lessening the war on drugs. First, we have no guarantee that fewer cops will mean less war on drugs; it could just mean more crime. Second, that kind of policy confuses issues in the public mind and makes it more difficult to be consistent. Third, that kind of second-best reasoning although correct in theory can lead to support for anything. I know people who refuse to sign their organ donor cards until they get paid, for example. Is this really a way to bring attention to the issue or is it just an excuse? My friend Tyrone is a master of these kinds of arguments which is perhaps why I try not to be too clever by half.
I’m sympathetic to Alex’s approach here. I dislike it when bad policies in one area are used to justify bad policies in others (e.g., public healthcare funding being used to justify lifestyle regulations). But we also have to think carefully about whether bad policies in other areas should be taken as variable or given. For the time being, I think the drug war – and the paramilitary police tactics it fosters – is unlikely to take a turn for the better. It might even get worse, given recent Supreme Court decisions like Hudson. In that context, I’m not inclined to give police forces more funding and then cross my fingers in the hope they’ll use it correctly.

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