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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Baltimore police officers respond to gunfire at the Pedestal Gardens Apartments in 2007

AFP/TIM SLOAN.

The following is an excerpt from The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, out this week from Twelve.

On Oct. 29, 1999, Peter Moskos sat in the office of the acting commissioner of the Baltimore City Police Department facing a life-altering choice: sign up for training with Baltimore City Police recruit class 99-5 or return to the Harvard sociology department a failure.

Moskos was a sociologist, born and bred. His father, Charles, a renowned military sociologist, was best known as the originator of President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton with a degree in sociology, Peter Moskos enrolled in Harvard’s prestigious Ph.D. program (rejection rate: 95 percent) and planned to study policing. Moskos wanted to follow in the footsteps of other sociologists by immersing himself in the lives of his subjects—in his case, the police officers who fought the war on drugs.

Police departments routinely let Boy Scouts, Junior Police Rangers, and Hollywood stars ride along. But Moskos is no Boy Scout, and he’s certainly no Matt Damon. No one Moskos approached with his proposal would give him the time of day. And why would they have? What commissioner would let some potentially uber-liberal Ivy League do-gooder sociologist into his department to pick at old scabs, dig up trash, and document well-hidden skeletons in the department’s closet?

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A ranking police officer, a friend of Peter’s father, whispered in the ear of Baltimore’s police commissioner, Thomas Frazier, who knew he was on his way out. A mayoral election was just around the corner, and all the leading candidates save one were on the record saying that the police department needed new leadership. A commissioner who knew he’d be gone in a matter of months didn’t need to give much thought to the wreckage Moskos’s visit might leave behind. Frazier allowed Moskos to observe recruit class 99-5 during their time at the police academy and then to follow them out onto the streets.

Still, Frazier’s replacement, Ronald L. Daniel—who would be stuck with any fallout from Moskos’ work—didn’t have quite so laissez-faire an attitude. (Daniel resigned after just a few months, but as Moskos notes in his book Cop in the Hood—on which, together with interviews of Moskos, we base much of this account—Moskos' ulterior motives were lost in the shuffle when Daniel's replacement came in.) Once informed of the situation, Daniel ordered Moskos into his office but didn’t send him packing outright. Instead, he offered Moskos a choice. He could stay, Daniel said, only if he passed the hiring requirements of the department and was willing to become a real police officer. No ride-alongs, no observer status, no sitting back while others did the work. Moskos would get an almost unprecedented look inside the department if he took the full-time job, but he’d also have to put his life at risk policing the city’s crime-ridden Eastern District.

The Baltimore City Police Department has the unenviable charge of cleaning up the streets of a city that’s a perennial front-runner for top spot in virtually every class of violent crime statistic—it’s affectionately nicknamed “Bodymore, Murdaland,” and is the setting for HBO’s celebrated crime drama The Wire—and to do so amid the larger municipal dysfunction of failed schools, a failed economy, and the worst drug problem in America. That makes it a great model for explaining the difficulties that orgs face in getting employees to do their jobs, and for allowing one to appreciate the near-miracle that anything ever gets done there at all. To get a view into the logic and workings of cubicle nation, we consider the particularly messy job of policing the Eastern District on the midnight-to-8:00-a.m. shift. The lessons from Moskos’ experience on the Baltimore City police force—from his hiring, to his job assignments, to how his sergeant monitored and evaluated his performance—can teach us a lot about the decidedly imperfect workplaces where most of us spend our lives.

The Multitasking Police Officer

Most people think of multitasking as a symptom of the information age, the irresistible distractions of smartphones, email, real-time stock quotes, and the Web being such that we can’t stay on task for more than seconds at a time. But when economists speak of multitasking, they’re talking about jobs that have multiple components to them—that is, just about any job at all. This presents a challenge to motivating and evaluating employees. Those on the receiving end of performance evaluations will devote themselves to the tasks that are evaluated while ignoring those that aren’t. If what gets measured is what gets managed, then what gets managed is what gets done.

Pay customer service reps for the number of calls handled rather than an hourly rate, and queries will be dispatched with efficiency. Compensate snowplow drivers for inches of snow cleared instead of by the hour—as Boston began doing in 2009—and they’ll miraculously start plowing faster. Unfortunately, however, performance in customer service and snowplowing aren’t about just speed; they also have an element of quality.

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The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office
By Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan
Twelve

Service reps paid per call may leave behind legions of angry customers whose complaints were received with abrupt (if speedy) indifference. And plowmen motivated by pay-per-inch contracts may speed their trucks through slick, snow-covered streets with rash abandon, ignoring black ice and other hard-to-clear road hazards.

Still, it’s pretty easy to come up with controls to regulate quality through random spot-checks and audits with customer service reps or even plowmen. That’s why so many customer service calls start with the notice “This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance and training purposes.”

Yet, like police officers, most of us juggle many more balls than do snowplow drivers or customer service reps—which is what makes it so hard for the police department to figure out what to tell policemen to do, let alone motivate them to do it.

Suppose you want to pay cops to solve crimes—or, even better, to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. You could stick with crimes that really mattered. If police were paid to get homicide rates down, there would surely be fewer murders in Charm City—you almost always get what you pay for. The unfortunate corollary to this, however, is that you don’t get what you don’t pay for. If low-value burglary were left off the list of remunerated felony arrests, burglars would make out like bandits. If the chosen threshold for a burglary to make it onto the list were $1,000, thieves would soon figure out that the cops won’t bother coming after them if they limit their loot to $999.

Burglary need not even be omitted to create incentive mayhem. If different crimes warranted different rewards, finding the “right” mix of compensation rates for catching thieves versus murderers versus loiterers would be impossible. If all crimes are rewarded equally, police will go after the low-hanging fruit such as parking violations and shoplifters, despite the much higher social cost of murders and billion-dollar frauds. Getting incentives wrong could literally be deadly. And who gets rewarded if the job’s well done? The individual detective who breaks the case? The beat cop who noticed something suspicious? The forensic technician who dug up the critical piece of DNA evidence?

Despite its precision, or maybe because of it, this is not a good way of figuring out what the typical police officer should do, or how to pay him.

Keeping It Simple

These complications might go some way toward explaining the reward structure that filtered down for Baltimore’s patrolmen, summarized by one of the officers in Moskos’ district: “Sarge really likes arrests, and I give them to him… If I see a white junkie coming here to cop [buy drugs], I’ll stop them. Conspiracy to possess. Loitering.” That’s straightforward: Sarge likes arrests; cops arrest people. End of story.

Keeping things simple has its own set of deficiencies. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making arrests for loitering (except a potential violation of civil liberties and damaging relations with the public). As Moskos notes, it’s a good way of clearing the streets of dealers and junkies, at least temporarily. But it also means that lots of cops will look for the lowest-cost way of boosting arrest stats, regardless of whether it’s the best way of making the Eastern District a better, safer place to live. Sarge never said that he likes only good arrests, after all, and the Baltimore officers aren’t rewarded for successful prosecutions, just the arrest itself. So, as with telemarketers paid by the call, if Sarge likes arrests, he risks getting quantity at the expense of quality.

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