What Can the Baltimore Police Teach Your Office?

The search for better economic policy.
Jan. 7 2013 5:22 AM

Excellent Police

What the Baltimore P.D. can teach your office about multitasking and incentives.

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That said, at least cops in the Eastern District are arresting somebody. And so the police force may be best off keeping it simple—it’s a trade-off. The same goes for a sales force paid for generating revenues. They may be tempted to give their customers discounts to make sales without concern for the impact on the company’s bottom line.

To illustrate the double-edged sword of arrest incentives, Moskos recounts the example of a fellow officer who decided to set a record for monthly arrests. His plan: lock people up for violating bicycle regulations. At night, all bikes need a light. The officer would stop cyclists in breach of the bike light rule (which was most of them), ask for ID, and pull out his pad to write a citation. Most riders, though, were biking without ID, and since all offenses become arrestable without identification, the officer’s little scheme netted 26 arrests in a single month. A record. His sergeant was thrilled, telling Moskos, “Look, I don’t know what his motivations are. But I think it’s good. He’s locking people

up, which is more than half the people in this squad.” Why was the sergeant so happy? His boss, the lieutenant, also got kudos for arrests on his shift, and in the sergeant’s words, “As long as the lieutenant likes them, I’m all for it.” And why did the lieutenant like them? Probably because the major did. And so on. Ultimately, we can surmise, the mayor could then say, “We arrested lots of people in the Eastern District. We’re doing our jobs to keep the streets safe,” which, when the streets aren’t particularly safe, also helps to deflect the blame.

Police officers in the Eastern District certainly got the message. Moskos wrote, “There are 70,000 arrests a year in the city of Baltimore. When I policed, 20,000 of those happened in the district I policed. The population of the Eastern District is less than

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45,000. That’s a lot of lockups.” Nearly one for every two residents. The department paid for arrests, and it got them.

This may seem nonsensical, even counterproductive, yet arresting light-less bikers had its purpose. While it might not seem among the Eastern District’s most pressing problems, many cyclists out in the middle of the night without identification were up to no good. By locking up 26 cyclists, the record-setting officer also took some drugs off the street.

The pitfalls of arrest quotas come into sharper relief with Moskos’ account of the trade-offs faced by a cop chasing down a drug suspect. During Moskos’ time in uniform, drug charges in Baltimore couldn’t be prosecuted unless an officer maintained constant sight of the drugs, a fact well-known to suspects, who will often throw down their drugs when fleeing. The pursuing officer will have to choose between keeping an eye on the drugs and actually arresting the suspect. While found drugs are critical to prosecution, police are judged on arrest statistics, not conviction rates. Officers generally follow the suspect rather than pausing to scoop up the evidence, all the while knowing that the prosecution will fail as a result. But the arrest will still be good.

Eventually, at least in Baltimore, the misalignment of arrest quotas with the overall goal of keeping the peace caused the arrangement to break down. When the Baltimore murder count reached new heights in June 2007, then-commissioner Leonard Hamm was held accountable for the lack of progress in lowering crime rates—despite the astronomical arrest rate—and forced to resign.

Hidden Policing

The objectives of policing are a lot murkier than those of a for-profit company, which are, at least to a first approximation, to make money. The stated mission of the Baltimore City police force is to “protect and preserve life, protect property, understand and serve the needs of the city’s neighborhoods, and to improve the quality of life of our community.”

There’s a lot involved in keeping the peace. Lowering the murder rate, clearing 911 calls, and reducing the supply of crack cocaine may contribute to the broader objectives of policing, but so do many other, hard-to-observe and harder-to-quantify aspects of the job. For instance, after politely settling down a group of young men sitting on a front stoop drinking malt liquor and blasting a boom box (only one of them carrying ID) Moskos’ partner commented that it “pisses me off … now they respect me more … because I wasn’t a dick. Would I be doing a better job if I locked them up? But I don’t get any credit for good policing.”

Moskos’ partner’s idea of “good policing” highlights once again the problem of motivating a multitasking police officer, but with a twist. The officer himself is aggravated by the fact that so much of what police do can’t be measured at all. Moskos’ partner was clearly doing his job, but in no quantifiable way. It’s hard to measure something that never happens. From the perspective of a commissioner guided by monthly crime reports, the lack of criminal activity might be the result of good policing as defined by the patrolman. After all, clearing the corner probably meant one less call to 911—but fewer emergency calls to 911 might also be a consequence of a rainy night, or a cold snap that kept would be criminals indoors, or improved economic conditions in the district. Who’s to say the cop didn’t sit in his warm patrol car under a bridge somewhere, as even Moskos admits that he himself occasionally did?

The fact that so much of policing is invisible to a desk-bound sergeant leaves each individual officer with enormous discretion that can be used in lots of ways: to slack off, to boost his stats, or to keep the peace. Even in the high-crime Eastern District, most cops patrol solo, so there isn’t even another officer to bear witness to good (or bad) behavior. On any given shift, an officer can decide to focus on traffic citations, bike arrests, or busting drug corners. He can let off minor offenders with a warning, or place them under arrest.

One of Moskos’ fellow officers described the way he flaunted this power in dealing with loiterers: “Sometimes I’ll flip a quarter. Tails, he goes to jail, and heads, he doesn’t. They’ll be going, ‘Heads! Yeeeah!’ ” Does anyone ever complain when the coin comes up tails? Apparently not—everyone knows that for minor arrests, they’re at the policeman’s mercy, and better not to endanger a system where you have at least a 50-50 chance of going free rather than none at all.

Whereas arrests for minor crimes are all a matter of discretion, catching violent felons also involves a lot of luck. An officer can’t set out on a shift with the intention of bringing in an armed robber or a murderer. He has to stumble upon one. And absent an obvious suspect, the case then just gets handed over to a detective.

If so much of good policing is invisible—such as defusing a potentially dangerous confrontation—and making arrests involves a mixture of luck and stretching police discretion to stop and frisk errant cyclists and loiterers, why build a system based on arrest quotas? Because it’s still the best you’ve got. Given the teamwork involved in peacekeeping, you can’t reward individual officers for the dog that fails to bark. It encourages them to push criminals and crimes onto someone else’s shift or into another precinct. It may be better to have a lot of bad arrests than no arrests at all.

What saves the system from complete collapse is that many police care about more than just juking, or inflating, their stats. After a few years, many officers get tired of policing “cowboy style” and come to see arrests as a sign of failed policing. If they were doing the job right, there wouldn’t be so much crime in the first place. Among the cops who don’t put up decent arrest stats, some are surely lazy and others burned out, but many are probably excellent police. You just can’t see it in the numbers.

Good thing, then, that while arrests are encouraged and rewarded via promotion and overtime pay, the incentives are pretty weak. If you just stay out of trouble and make an arrest now and then, no one gives you too hard a time. The older cops who have left their cowboy policing days behind them do just fine. If this weren’t the case, there might not be any excellent police in Baltimore at all.

From the book The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Copyright 2013 by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

Tim Sullivan is the editorial director of Harvard Business Review Press. Follow him on Twitter.

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