Federal Programs and the Real Costs of Policing

91 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2015 Last revised: 7 Jul 2015

See all articles by Rachel Harmon

Rachel Harmon

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: April 1, 2015


Dozens of federal statutes authorize federal agencies to give money and power to local police departments and municipalities in order to improve public safety. While these federal programs encourage better coordination of police efforts and make pursuing public safety less financially costly for local communities, they also encourage harmful policing. Of course, policing often interferes with our interests in autonomy, privacy, and property, and those harms are often worthwhile in exchange for security and order. Federal public safety programs, however, are designed, implemented, and evaluated without reference to the nonbudgetary costs of policing. When those costs are high, federal programs can make local policing seem cheaper for communities, but actually make it more costly in its impacts and therefore less efficient.

The coercion costs of policing are overlooked in most assessments of policing policy, not just in federal programs. Ordinarily, however, even when they are not formally recognized, those costs are accounted for, at least to some degree, in local political processes because local government officials experience public ire when the harms of policing become too great. Unfortunately, federal programs also frequently undermine this check on the intrusiveness of local policing. Internalizing the nonbudgetary costs of policing depends on public capacity to monitor harmful police conduct and on city officials’ capacity to influence police conduct. Some federal programs interfere with these conditions by clouding responsibility for law enforcement coercion and by giving money directly to departments rather than to municipalities. Thus, federal programs not only ignore significant costs of the policies they subsidize, they also interfere with the usual local mechanisms for managing those costs. Until federal public safety programs are approached with a more complete understanding of policing - one that attends to its full costs and the need for accountability - federal programs will continue to promote policing practices that do more harm than necessary and maybe even more harm than good.

Keywords: policing. coercion, federal programs, COPS, JAG, asset forfeiture, militarism, cost-benefit analysis, arrests, federalism, police departments, civil rights, costs of crime, grants, 1033 program, Homeland Security grants, 287(g), Secure Communities, fear of police, police accountability, task forces

Suggested Citation

Harmon, Rachel, Federal Programs and the Real Costs of Policing (April 1, 2015). 90 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 870 (2015), Virginia Law and Economics Research Paper No. 14, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 27, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2600606 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2600606

Rachel Harmon (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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