What Are the Police for, Anyway? (Ep. 476)

Listen now:

The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to policing, as evidenced by more than 1,000 fatal shootings by police each year. But we’re an outlier in other ways too: a heavily-armed populace, a fragile mental-health system, and the fact that we spend so much time in our cars. Add in a history of racism and it’s no surprise that barely half of all Americans have a lot of confidence in the police. So what if we start to think about policing as … philanthropy?

Listen and follow our podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

*      *      *

Edwin Raymond is a police lieutenant in New York City. One day, about 10 years ago, he was just finishing up his shift:

Edwin RAYMOND: I was walking back to the station house when someone in a bodega ran out and flagged me down and said, “Officer, Officer, we’re being robbed.” And I said, “What do you mean, man?” I thought he was joking. I’m like, what, really? At the end of my shift? I said, “Does the guy have a gun?” He said, “Yeah.” So, I put over the distress call for backup. I said, “What is he, you know —  white, Latino, Black?” He said, “He’s Black.” So, I pull out my gun. And I’m waiting for the backup. 

Raymond is also Black. He grew up in Brooklyn; his parents were poor immigrants from Haiti. 

RAYMOND: That’s when I see a Black guy walk out, hoodie over his head. He had a plastic bag. And I say, “Get on the ground.” And he’s arguing with me. And it’s weird because I’m like, “Bro, I have a gun pointed at you. Can you please follow my directions?”  

When Raymond was a teenager, he was always getting hassled by the police in his neighborhood. He had been confused by this.

RAYMOND: Why can’t they see the difference between me, you know, who’s in college, who doesn’t commit crimes, and some other people up the block who are involved in certain lifestyles? Why do they think I’m them, just because we live near each other, just because we look alike? 

But one day, at a Haitian street festival, he ran into a family friend who was a police officer.

RAYMOND: I saw him there. And it was just like this sense of pride. Like, wow, like, I know him. I could touch him. Look, I could get right next to this gun. And I also saw, like, the quality of life he was able to live, not knowing that cops get paid pretty well. And that’s when I said, “You know what? I think I need to join this thing, man.” 

Which is how years later, Edwin Raymond finds himself outside a bodega, trying to get a robbery suspect on the ground.

RAYMOND: So, he starts getting on the ground, but he’s like protesting. Finally, I have him get on his stomach and extend his legs and his arms. And as I get closer to search his waistband, I can hear the siren of the backup coming. He takes his hands that were extended and puts it near his chest to push himself up. I almost depress the trigger. Because in my mind, you have a gun, you know? By then, the backup had come. We had him at gunpoint. I go, I search the waistband, and he has an imitation pistol. It was an orange water gun spray-painted black.

Raymond and the other officers arrested the suspect and brought him back to the station house.

RAYMOND: I’ll tell you, some of the old timers said, “Why the hell didn’t you shoot him? It would have been a good shoot.” Like, “Raymond, you know you played with your life, right? You waited to find out if he had a real gun? Who does that? And when he was in his cell, a few cops said, “You’re lucky it was Raymond. Because if it was anybody else, you’d have been dead.” But I just — at that moment, I didn’t feel the complete need to pull the trigger.

If Edwin Raymond had felt the “complete need to pull the trigger,” this robbery suspect might have become a statistic in a category that no one is happy about. Here’s the statistic: last year, just over 1,000 people were shot and killed by police in the U.S. That’s 34 fatalities for every 10 million residents. In a ranking of other wealthy democracies, that puts the U.S. at No. 1. Canada is second, with 10 police killings per 10 million people; Australia’s next, at nine.

Why does the U.S. have triple the rate of fatal police shootings of the nearest country? That is not a simple question to answer. But today, we’re going to try. More broadly, we’re going to try to figure out what makes American policing so American. We’ve put out a series of episodes lately looking at the many ways in which the U.S. is fundamentally different from other countries. We’ve looked at our culture of individualism; we’ve looked at transportation and child poverty. You could probably come up with 100 explanations for why U.S. policing is so different from other countries. In this episode, we’ll focus on four. The first one has to do with where people are most likely to encounter a police officer.

Sarah SEO: A lot of American life is happening in cars. 

Another is about how police forces are organized:

Michele GELFAND: There’s a real lack of standardization.

Then there’s the demand side of the equation — the person on the other end of the 911 call.

Harold POLLACK: A very large fraction of the 911 calls in the United States, there’s either a substance-use issue or a mental-health issue. 

And: maybe the biggest driver of U.S. policing style:

RAYMOND: Because of the amount of guns out there, you have to equip your police officers with the right tools.

On Freakonomics Radio: how policing gets done in America — and what happens if you think of policing as philanthropic?

*      *      *

The U.S. leads the world in prisoners: more than 2 million people incarcerated. China is second, at 1.7 million — but they have more than four times our population, so their incarceration rate is much lower. We are also No. 1 in the incarceration-rate category: 629 prisoners per 100,000 residents. In second and third place are El Salvador and Turkmenistan. An incarceration rate like ours requires a lot of policing. And we have that, too: nearly 700,000 full-time law-enforcement officers. That’s not the all-time high in the U.S., but it’s pretty close. Which may be a bit surprising, since crime has fallen sharply over the past few decades. The rate of reported violent crime in the U.S. today is about half what it was in 1990. One argument says that crime has fallen because of all those police, and there’s evidence that is at least partially true. Another argument says the police have been arresting way too many people, especially people who sell or buy drugs.

SEO: My name is Sarah Seo and I’m a professor of law at Columbia Law School. 

Sarah Seo was interested in the second argument.

SEO: I wanted to study the history of the war on drugs. I wanted to know what drug laws did to American society and culture. I like to say that I became an accidental historian of cars, because that’s not what I had thought I would be studying.

“An accidental historian of cars”? This needs explaining.

SEO: In studying the war on drugs, I wanted to look into law enforcement and the constitutional provision that is most relevant to law enforcement is the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment is the one that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The main concern originally was protecting the privacy of a person’s home.

SEO: So I started by reading all Fourth Amendment cases, and I was surprised to find very few Fourth Amendment cases in the beginning.

“In the beginning” meaning in the 18th and 19th centuries.

SEO: It had all changed in the first few decades of the 20th century. And a lot of those cases were about cars. Whenever there’s an explosion of a legal issue, it usually means there’s a social change that requires the law to address how people should govern themselves in a new situation. And when I looked into it, I realized American society had completely changed because of the car. Cars suddenly appeared on streets that were meant for wagons, pedestrians, a few carriages, and so they created chaos. There were a lot of accidents. Cars were really dangerous. They killed people.  

This led to new laws — traffic regulations. 

SEO: Somebody had to enforce those regulations. And the statutes would say the police would do it.

Keep in mind this is happening during Prohibition.

SEO: A lot of American life is happening in cars. Criminals are using cars as getaways. Bootleggers are using cars to transport alcohol. And we see from the very early years of the automobile the merger of crime-fighting and traffic-law enforcement.

This is where the Fourth Amendment comes in. Because the police faced a key question:

SEO: Do officers need a warrant to stop and search a car? 

The law seemed to say yes. But:

SEO: But there’s a practical difficulty of not being able to go get a warrant to stop a moving car before it drives off to another jurisdiction. 

This issue made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

SEO: And what the Court did was to create an exception for automobiles. This was a huge decision for two reasons. One, it didn’t require a warrant if an officer has probable cause that there’s evidence of crime inside the car. And the second big consequence of this decision is that no longer does a neutral judge determine whether there’s probable cause and will therefore issue a warrant. It’s the officer on the street deciding for himself whether he has probable cause to stop a car. And that transferred a lot of discretionary authority to the police to decide which cars to pull over. So that was a huge case, in terms of constitutionally legitimizing the exercise of discretionary policing. 

Not only did discretionary policing become the norm but, as Seo argues, it became a foundation from which the mission of policing expanded.

SEO: Throughout the 20th century, the police have been delegated to enforce more and more laws. You see the expansion of policing into other domains like schools. The other thing is that because American society was a car society, a lot of questions about what the limits to police discretion might be happened in the context of a car. And so there’s a lot of Fourth Amendment cases that seemingly have nothing to do with cars. But if you read the cases, they come up in the context of a traffic stop. 

Americans, as you likely know, spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars. And the traffic stop is a key touchpoint in American policing.

SEO: The traffic stop is the most common encounter between individuals and the police, and it’s also the site of a lot of police violence and police shootings that we see in the news today.

Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Minnesota man, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in April.

ABC News: We want to warn you, this body-camera footage is hard to watch.

The officer reportedly meant to use her Taser but fired her gun instead.

NEWSCASTER: The officer heard saying she just shot him.

OFFICER: I just shot him!

Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman, survived her traffic stop, in Texas:

OFFICER: Step out of the car.

But was arrested for assaulting a police officer:

Sandra BLAND: Wow!

OFFICER: Get out of the car!

BLAND: Failure to signal? You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?

OFFICER: Get over there!

And a few days later hanged herself in jail. Sandra Bland, like Daunte Wright, was Black. Black Americans are five times more likely to be arrested than white Americans. On a per-capita basis, Blacks are also much more likely to be fatally shot by the police. There has of course been a racial reckoning around policing lately

PROTESTORS: Hey, hey! Ho, ho!  These racist cops have got to go!

Highlighted by the police murder of George Floyd. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 51 percent of U.S. adults have either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police. And that 51 percent figure contains a huge racial divide — in fact, it’s the largest racial divide among the 16 major institutions that Gallup surveys. About 56 percent of white adults profess confidence in the police; among Blacks, the number is just 27 percent. This despite the fact that police departments across the U.S. have increasingly hired more Black officers. But this doesn’t surprise Edwin Raymond, the Black police lieutenant we met earlier. By the way, here’s what Raymond is best known for:

RAYMOND: Definitely being a police whistle-blower and someone with the courage to stand up to the system. 

Raymond is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit alleging that the N.Y.P.D. used an illegal quota system to arrest people, and that that system disproportionately targeted minorities. The N.Y.P.D. denies it uses quotas, and many of the lawsuit’s claims have been dismissed. Although a couple years ago, the department agreed to a $75 million settlement related to another lawsuit claiming the N.Y.P.D. has issued nearly a million summonses that had no legal basis.

RAYMOND: So, the racism is there, but it’s just a small pool of the leadership that keeps the systemic racism going as a policy. And at the bottom of the pyramid are the rank and file who simply enforce it. 

The racial history of policing is a deep and brutal history, extending of course back to slavery. Sarah Seo found plenty of evidence in the early automobile era

SEO: So as soon as Black people are also driving, they’re immediately encountering abusive policing by traffic police. That was when I saw the first letter to the N.A.A.C.P. complaining about traffic police. And racialized policing becomes institutionalized as a practice during the war on drugs, which goes full circle to why I study this in the first place.

Seo came to wonder whether it makes sense for the police to handle traffic enforcement in the first place.

SEO: Traffic, I see as more regulatory than criminal. And so I think those functions could be split up, where the police could focus on real criminal investigation of murders, of violence, and have traffic enforcement be more a domain of like paying taxes, where if you’re caught speeding, you pay a ticket, like we have to pay taxes. To really ease the fraught situation we have.

For what it’s worth, Seo’s argument has essentially been echoed by New York’s attorney general. Seo says that technology could also help.

SEO: Why have humans pull cars over when that same information can go to an official sitting in an office and mail out notices saying, your license and registration is expired? And so to automate as much as we can to reduce human interactions on the road, but at the same time enforce traffic laws.

A lot of would-be police reform focuses on technology and modernization.

RAYMOND: Six years ago, the Obama administration had the Presidential Task Force on 21st-Century Policing. 

Lieutenant Raymond again.

RAYMOND: Their findings were sent to police departments across the nation. But the changes were just highly recommended. There was no power to enforce it because of states’ rights, because of the way policing works. 

GELFAND: Our policing problem, in my view, reflects the larger looseness of the culture in the sense that we need more accountability, and more standardization. 

And that is Michele Gelfand. She’s a cross-cultural psychologist who has analyzed the differences between countries based on how “tight” or “loose” their cultures are. “Tight” cultures tend to be marked by compliance and rule-following; “looser” cultures tend to offer more freedoms. The U.S. is overall fairly loose, but there’s a lot of variance from place to place. After all, we have 50 states that can each set their own laws. This means there’s a lot of variance in how a given police department will operate.

GELFAND: Accountability, being subject to rules, being evaluated based on your abidance by the rules and punished if you’re not acting accordingly — is something that’s really important for groups like the police. And having standardization so that we know what are people accountable for is really important. And this is where the U.S., compared to many other countries, is really an anomaly when it comes to policing. There’s a real lack of standardization in terms of practices.

Just how decentralized is U.S. policing? Here’s a big number: 18,000. That’s how many federal, state, county, and local law-enforcement agencies we have in the U.S. Some are huge, like New York City’s. But most are much smaller, and many are tiny, with fewer than 10 officers. And — to Michele Gelfand’s point about a lack of standardization — each agency has not only its own jurisdiction but its own internal regulations. You can imagine how hard it is to police 18,000 policing agencies. And how many law-enforcement agencies are there in a place like the U.K.?

Alex MURRAY: So roughly we have 43. There’s no police force, really, that has less than a thousand staff. 

That’s Alex Murray.

MURRAY: I’m a commander in the Met and I am the violence lead for London. 

“The Met” as in the Metropolitan Police, London’s equivalent of the N.Y.P.D. Murray is also chair of the Society of Evidence-Based Policing.

MURRAY: Yeah, that’s right. And these are cops just wanting to understand the evidence of what is effective.

I asked Murray to talk about the difference between the decentralized setup of American policing versus the U.K.

MURRAY: Well, I’m not here to say the U.K. gets it right, U.S. gets it wrong. But I can see benefits of having bigger police forces. The benefits are minimum training requirements, standard operating practices that can be governed, and well-trained, and with training comes a profoundly different outcome. You can see that again and again. 

DUBNER: How long does the median U.K. police officer train before becoming a police officer? 

MURRAY: So we have two years’ probation. They’re called probationers when they start, and now everybody gets a degree as well. So you either come with a degree as a constable, or if you join the police now, you get a degree through that service, where you have to demonstrate a certain amount of competencies, both practically and theoretically.

The U.K. has a national police academy for training; the U.S. does not. On average, a U.S. police officer gets about 35 days of basic training, including 73 hours of firearms training. Joe Biden did propose that during his first 100 days as president, he would establish a national police oversight commission. That hasn’t happened. Federal standards would likely help clarify the question of just how discretionary our discretionary policing should be, especially when it comes to the use of force.

MURRAY: I think your listeners might find it interesting to look at what we go through before we go to a house with guns and then compare it to what happens in the U.S. So, say we need to execute a warrant or arrest someone from an address, but they know that that person might have links to firearms. So the first thing they’ll do is they’ll speak to a tactical advisor who will bring in a tactical firearms commander. That tactical firearms commander will then go through what we call a national decision-making model, and they will draw together a plan that first highlights what’s the information, but then the risks and threats. And they will say, what’s the risk? It’s medium, low, or high, and what’s our strategy against that risk? And they’ll say, well, we want to maximize the safety of the police officer, minimize the risk to the child. And by the way, we want to recover evidence.

DUBNER: And this is happening over what kind of time frame, Alex? 

MURRAY: So this might happen in three or four hours, if I’m being quick.  

This is not to say that U.S. police officers don’t have protocols for handling this kind of situation. But the decision to use force that a U.S. officer might make on their daily shift a decision like this is rarely run up the chain of command, especially if the situation calls for urgency. And you can imagine how a review process that takes at best a few hours could put officers — and civilians — in danger. This brings us to another aspect of modern U.S. policing that’s related to a constitutional amendment — the Second Amendment. That’s the one that has to do with the right to bear arms. To understand why the U.S. has so many fatal police shootings, we must first understand why U.S. police are so heavily armed. And that has to do with how heavily armed Americans are. It’s estimated there are 120 guns for every 100 U.S. residents. How about the U.K.? About five guns per 100 people. Accordingly, many fewer police in the U.K. are armed — in England and Wales, only about 4 percent. Not surprisingly, many fewer people there are fatally shot by police: last year, just three in a population of about 60 million. Again, the U.S. number of fatal police shootings last year was more than 1,000.

MURRAY: I feel for police officers in the States, who I imagine, whenever they are stopping someone proactively, they have to assume that they are gun-carrying. We can safely assume that people are not gun-carrying in the U.K. I mean, you can’t carry; guns are virtually not a thing lawfully.

DUBNER: So, a logical person could easily reach a conclusion that U.S. police are so heavily or frequently armed because the population that they’re policing is so heavily or frequently armed, yes? 

MURRAY: Yeah, that is an argument. But there are other countries who are also heavily armed that don’t have the same death rate. Firearms are very common in Canada as well. And I think that Switzerland is —.

DUBNER: Switzerland, I think you’re required to have one, right? 

MURRAY: Yeah, and I don’t think they shoot many people there.

DUBNER: Now, we should say a police officer in the U.S. is about 30 times more likely to be killed than a police officer in, say, Germany. So how do you consider the risk to police in that equation? 

MURRAY: Yeah, what’s the prevalence of firearms like in Germany? Is it equivalent? Is it considerably less? And, you know, clearly culture plays a big impact.

RAYMOND: In this nation, because of the Second Amendment and the amount of guns out there, you have to equip your police officers with the right tools. 

Edwin Raymond again, of the N.Y.P.D.

RAYMOND: Believe me, I’ve wrestled with that — you know, whether or not we can disarm the police force. And unfortunately, there are just certain things about the culture of this nation and laws in this nation that it doesn’t fit here. Like, okay, New York City has the toughest gun laws in the country. But the guns that end up killing people here, they start off very legal in states where the laws are a lot more lax. And that’s because of the Second Amendment. 

So how do you successfully police a country full of guns, a country built around the automobile, a country with 18,000 separate law-enforcement agencies?

*      *      *

The state of modern policing in the U.S. isn’t very surprising once you consider some of the factors that set us apart from other countries — the prevalence of guns, and cars; the decentralization of our police forces. But it is somewhat surprising when you consider the origins of modern policing. This happened in the U.K., at the direction of a man named Robert Peel.

MURRAY: Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police, as it was, with the very principle of it not being military, and policing by the consent for the people.

That, again, is Alex Murray, a commander with the Metropolitan Police in London.

MURRAY: And that any use of force should be absolutely minimized.  

This was during the 1820’s and 30’s. Robert Peel — who would go on to become prime minister — he was devoted to professionalizing London’s police force. He put officers in uniforms, he stressed safety and efficiency, and he preached the twin virtues of public safety and police propriety.

MURRAY: Those have sort of been inculcated across the culture of U.K. policing for a long time. And of course, we make mistakes and get it wrong all the time as well. But that police service very much doesn’t feel like a police force. And please don’t misinterpret that as being soft on crime. Quite the contrary, because crime affects victims, and we want to stop it and we will be harsh on people who perpetuate violence against individuals.

Robert Peel is remembered for a set of nine “Peelian Principles,” although it’s not clear he actually wrote them. For instance: “The basic mission for which the police … exist is to prevent crime and disorder.” And: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.” Peel’s principles spread to early police forces in the U.S., which modeled themselves after the Met.

DUBNER: I’m looking at these Peelian Principles. No. 3: “Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.” That sounds lovely and often impossible. Are you really saying that the foundation of modern U.K. policing still is built atop those Peelian principles? 

MURRAY: Yeah, it has to be, Stephen. The only alternative is a police officer on every street corner enforcing through surveillance. And that is an impossible situation. You could never fund it and you’d be a police state if you did. The people have to see the police as someone who’s on their side to protect them and for the benefit of everybody. 

DUBNER: Now in the U.S., I’m sure there are some people who do see the police exactly as you describe. But then there are some populations who don’t. I’m guessing that’s the same in the U.K., yeah?

MURRAY: Absolutely. Yeah. I think the context is different here, but certainly we’re really keen to improve relationships with Black communities in London. And certain parts of the Black community in London won’t trust the police and we’re really keen to address that. 

Here again is Edwin Raymond of the New York Police Department.

RAYMOND: I was actually shocked to read the Peelian Principles for the first time. 

DUBNER: Because it seemed so gentle and sensible? 

RAYMOND: Exactly. Compared to what I know I experienced and what was being asked of me, it was a 180 from the Peelian Principles, where basically one of them is: the metric in which to measure efficacy of police work is not by the amount of criminals you catch, it’s the prevention. It’s the lack of the crime happening.

DUBNER: Can you talk for a second just about that? Some famous management guru said it years ago: “You can’t fix what you can’t measure.” So measurement obviously has a lot of good purpose. But when the primary metric or when a primary metric of policing is arrests, how does that affect the work that you do? 

RAYMOND: The commanders whose promotions are determined by those arrest numbers, they become drunk on it. But here’s where it gets funny. If the numbers are not what the leadership wants and crime still plummets, you’ll still be in trouble, you know? And that always shocked me because it’s like, wait, if the objective was to lower crime and as a commander I’m able to do it without overpolicing, then what’s the issue? 

DUBNER: So I don’t understand why that would be. I mean, I understand how arrests are a metric that’s easy to count. But why wouldn’t the crime numbers themselves be the primary metric ?  

RAYMOND: Well, to me, it’s two things. One, think about it, most people, if their job is to lower crime and crime drops, whether or not they had something to do with it, they’re going to take credit for it, because it’s their job. So, by making a connection to arrests, it keeps you relevant. If we’re able to successfully drop crime and the police is not connected to that, then the argument inevitably will be: do we need the police? And if so, how many? 

Edwin Raymond’s argument is that the N.Y.P.D. uses arrest quotas in part to keep itself relevant. And: to generate revenue.

RAYMOND: You can predict how much revenue you expect to earn if you simply set a number of how many summonses the police department should issue. 

But many of these summonses are for low-level offenses — which, you could argue, are more costly to the suspect than they are helpful to society. This style of policing was made famous in New York in the 1990’s, under police commissioner Bill Bratton. It was known as “broken windows” policing. The idea was that aggressively enforcing even minor crimes — like breaking a window or jumping a subway turnstile — was an effective way to prevent bigger crimes. Edwin Raymond is not a fan.

RAYMOND: Broken windows changed the way that nonsense arrests are perceived, with the notion that that’s what stops the bigger things from happening. Other police departments throughout the nation and then throughout the world, unfortunately, embraced this. And the data just doesn’t prove to be something that works

MURRAY: I’m quite persuaded by some aspects of broken windows. 

Alex Murray again, of London’s Metropolitan Police.

MURRAY: If the environment is really shoddy and everyone’s breaking the rules in that environment, then it equates to: you can break rules here.

But he agrees there is a downside to going after every low-level offense.

MURRAY: I think the evidence is emerging and quite strong: if you criminalize someone for a low-level offense, it will create, in the end, more victims of crime and probably have that individual incarcerated. You know, so someone makes a little mistake — coming down on them like a ton of bricks is not an effective crime-prevention tool.  

DUBNER: I’m really curious about the cognitive biases that exist — obviously in all of us — but especially within policing. One bias, it seems pretty strong in most people, is sometimes called the “Do Something Bias,” which is: “Don’t just stand there, do something, whatever it is.” And I’m really curious how you think that applies in policing. Because it strikes me that one difficulty of policing is that if you do your job well, often nothing happens, and no one hears about it.

MURRAY: It’s very easy to measure arrests, incarcerations, amount of guns seized, amount of knives seized. But people are obsessed on outcomes and they have been for a long time and I’m beginning to question outcome obsession, because so many things, particularly in the world of crime, lead to an outcome. Crime goes up, crime goes down. But I’m much more interested in outputs. And all the time I’ve heard in my service, don’t give me outputs, give me outcomes. But if we know what works, then all I want to measure is: are my police officers doing what works? Are they in the area where crime is highest at the right time? I would like to have the management information being outcomes and the performance targets being the outputs.

RAYMOND: The quotas incentivize arresting and ticketing people to the point where you create these very overzealous cops. 

Edwin Raymond again.

RAYMOND: I know cops who work in different precincts who are in competition with each other over who can get the most arrests for the month? And because these arrests feed the policy from the leadership, they’re unable to see how problematic that culture is. They don’t understand how their pressure creates bad policing. It’s disingenuous to try to weed out people that might become problems when you’re creating the problem based on what you incentivize. It’s bad soil, you know? It’s not the apple. It’s the soil. It’s deeper.

DUBNER: Talk to me about the difference between what you learn in the New York Police Academy about your job and about dealing with the public, and then how similar the actual job is to what you’ve been trained to do. 

RAYMOND: So, in the police academy, everything on paper is pretty good, but what actually goes on, that’s where things are different. For instance, it’s like boot camp in the police academy. And their justification for treating you that way is they’re instilling discipline. So, if you encounter someone in the street that tells you to eff off or, you know, speaks to you in a violent or disrespectful manner, you’re not going to go crazy and do something, you know? That’s what it says in the book. And that’s what the culture of the academy is. But once you get out, it’s like, “Don’t you ever let anyone talk negatively to a cop. You know why? Because with you, it’ll be, ‘eff you.’ With that cop, it’ll be a push. And eventually, they’ll feel comfortable enough to kill a cop. So, you nip it right in the bud.” So, it’s like, “Wow, that’s completely opposite of — like, I sat there for six months and let you guys yell in my face, because it’s supposed to be teaching me discipline.”  

DUBNER: And when you talk about that message, once you’re actually on the job, how is that message delivered? Is it from literally a commanding officer? Is it just the way the culture works? 

RAYMOND: It’s the culture, you emulate it subconsciously sometimes, and sometimes you’re just taught it directly. Like, what I just shared with you was verbatim. It’s like, “Don’t you never let anybody talk to any cop like that. People need to learn to respect the police. Once we lose the respect, we lose everything.”

DUBNER: Let me ask you this. I’ve always been amazed at how fire departments work around the world. There are many, many, many, many fewer fires now than there were 100 years ago. But there aren’t anywhere near as many fewer firefighters. And what they seem to have done a really good job is rebranding themselves. In other words, firefighters do a lot of things now beyond fighting fires. And that’s accepted as a mandate to continue getting the funding. Policing — I’ve always wondered why the same didn’t happen or at least to a greater degree. Because as much as crime fell in New York City over the last few decades, which was a massive drop — if you want to preserve the budget, I understand that. But why not change the nature of what police actually do? 

RAYMOND: Because there’s a resistance to it in the culture. The job is romanticized long before many people even get onto it. Shows like Law and Order and we all know the plethora of shows. The job has its risk, of course. You know, you’re running towards the gunfire, not away from it. But for the most part, everyday work of a police officer, it can be pretty smooth. It’s more work to actually have those other responsibilities, which is why sometimes, they’re not too good at it, you know the Swiss Army Knife of social ills.

DUBNER: Can you talk about that a little bit? I mean, you’re too young to remember when deinstitutionalization happened, but I’m sure you know about it. The government used to take care of especially mentally ill people very differently than they do now. So, as a police officer, I’m really curious to know what that is like for you to respond to situations where often you’d probably be much better off with a mental health expert along with you, and what you do in those cases.

RAYMOND: Well, for me, specifically, prior to becoming a police officer, I actually worked with the developmentally disabled. I come in with a different understanding. And oftentimes, when I’m dealing with what we call E.D.P.’s — emotionally disturbed persons — it’s the training from my previous job that kicks in, not the training from the police department. I can’t tell you the amount of times that I’ve been called to respond to a situation that I wasn’t even trained for, that I had no business being at. Eventually the perfect storm will align, and someone could end up getting hurt or getting killed because officers are doing too much. So, we can divest and reallocate those funds to either support existing agencies or to create agencies and responses for certain things that we don’t absolutely need law enforcement present for.

POLLACK: Deinstitutionalization has been a real success in the realm of intellectual and developmental disabilities.

That’s Harold Pollack, a scholar of public health and social work at the University of Chicago. He’s also done a lot of work on policing.

POLLACK: I think the term deinstitutionalization gets a bum rap, and has become identified with a homeless man in the subway screaming at people, whose needs are not being met, and who is posing a challenge to the community. 

DUBNER: Can you tell me anything about how the median citizen assesses the value and the practice of the modern, let’s say, big-city police department now? 

POLLACK: Well, I think we’re all ambivalent because people want to be protected by the police. But they also want the police to genuinely align themselves with the community and protect it and respect it. When you look at particular things like “defund the police,” those poll very poorly. People want the police to be there. But they also want services, like mental-health services, to be properly funded. 

DUBNER: If I were to ask you, Harold, to characterize the mission of policing in the U.S., what would you say? 

POLLACK: Well, what the mission should be is to keep everyone safe, and keeping people safe includes keeping the people safe who might themselves be experiencing behavioral challenges.

DUBNER: Where do you think again, the median Chicago citizen stands on changing not just the mission of the police, but the responsibilities of the police?

POLLACK: I think most Chicagoans and I think actually a lot of police officers would love to see non-police responses to mental-health challenges. By the way, a lot of the things that we talk about under the banner of “defund the police,” what we really should be talking about is Medicaid. How do we provide better mental-health services through the things that are actually supposed to pay for mental-health services? Medicaid is way, way, way bigger than the law-enforcement budget in the United States. There’s no particular reason that that money has to come from law-enforcement budgets, it just has to come from somewhere. And I think we have to fund mental health services more generously. If we completely defunded the police, it actually would not provide enough money. If you look at what it really costs to deal with homelessness issues, mental-health issues, we really have to make a profound national investment in these, and Medicaid and other vehicles are really where the money is. 

DUBNER: And how would you say the policing style that you would like to see jibes with the reality of modern policing? 

POLLACK: I think that it’s better than it was 20 years ago. It’s a lot better, but boy, there’s a long way to go.

Here’s piece of evidence supporting Pollack’s claim that we have a long way to go: of all the people shot and killed in a given year by American police officers, at least 25 percent of them had a serious mental illness. So is that a policing failure? Or our shared, societal failure? Studies have found that 6 to 10 percent of all police interactions with the public involve someone with a serious mental illness. People with mental illness are significantly overrepresented in our jails and prisons. Some states and many cities are confronting this problem directly. They’ve started crisis-response teams to deal with people in mental or emotional distress as an alternative to calling 911. To me, this issue is perhaps the best illustration of how complicated modern policing can be — and how so much of the discussion we hear about it is little more than sloganeering, from one angle or another.

DUBNER: So let me ask you the biggest question last. What do you think police should be for? 

MURRAY: It’s hard to not be cliché, isn’t it? But I think we are an organization that fights injustice.

Alex Murray again, from the Met Police and the Society of Evidence-Based Policing.

MURRAY: And by injustice it means that someone takes the things off me that they have no right to or that they are reckless and as a result have killed someone, you know, in a car accident. So our job is to minimize injustice. 

DUBNER: I’m reading something that you, Alex Murray, wrote in 2015. It was called “Policing as Philanthropy.” You wrote, “We have never, ever heard of the policing mission coined in terms of love, perhaps because of the connotations and skepticism that brings, but Martin Luther King places it at the heart of both justice and power. This is absolutely relevant to policing when what makes us different to other professions is the ability to exercise power on citizens.” That’s, you know, beautiful and high-minded. Is it practical, though? 

MURRAY: Yeah. I see policing as philanthropic. I definitely do. Our purpose is to serve citizens. One of the really important things for police officers to realize is, and I think most do, is that there’s a background story to everybody. And with that comes empathy. And yes, there are bad people. But we need to understand the background of individuals to have the greatest impact. And there’s some sort of simple general rules that you can follow, you know, the principles of procedural justice. It’s not rocket science. But if you treat people with dignity and respect, one. Two, you demonstrate your motivation is good. Now that’s really important. And three, you listen.

If I can use a little example from Queensland in Australia: a great criminologist called Lorraine Mazerolle did an experiment on drink-drive testing, where, at different checkpoints, they used different tactics. So at one checkpoint, they just gave the breath test as usual. And in another checkpoint, they said: “Look, thanks very much for stopping, the hardest part of my job is visiting someone and telling them their partner has just died in a car accident. And I’m here to stop that happening to you, so can you just blow in this test — and by the way, is there anything else I can help you with?” When she checked up with those drivers afterwards, there was a profound difference in what they thought of the police and also what they thought about the offense of drink driving.” If you were to say in two words, the mission of policing, I would say “less victims.”

That’s it for today’s episode. Thanks to Alex Murray and Edwin Raymond for the police perspectives; Sarah Seo, Harold Pollack, and Michele Gelfand for the academic insights. And thanks most of all to you, for listening, and for continuing to spread the word about Freakonomics Radio. We really appreciate that.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Mary Diduch with help from Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg RippinJoel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Brent Katz, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Ryan Kelley, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

RESOURCES

EXTRA