Policing’s Information Problem
NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 19-39
66 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2019
Date Written: September 1, 2019
We spend over $100 billion each year on policing in the United States, yet have very little idea of what keeps us safe. From adoption of new technologies like facial recognition to militarization to stop-and-frisk tactics, and much else, law enforcement in the United States pursue public safety strategies without understanding the full range of costs, or benefits. There is a particularly troubling tendency to ignore the social costs (the impact policing practices have on individuals) — and the distributional costs (how policing regularly falls most heaving on racial and marginalized communities). As a result, we don’t know what keeps us safe, and there is a real risk we are doing more harm than good.
This Article asks why we as a society know so little about how to assure safety, and what we can do to change this state of affairs. The Article’s thesis is that a variety of dysfunctions around the politics of policing leads to legislative stasis and executive inertia: governing officials simply defer to the police. Blind trust in the police, fear of a powerful police lobby, and a law enforcement culture of secrecy and insulation results in a serious information failure. Legislative and executive officials (and the police themselves) simply lack the information needed to address whether police are doing a good job of keeping the public safe, and so they do little or nothing to assure public safety.
The Article proposes a set of solutions to encourage the development of information about policing, including sentinel event review, information-forcing legislation, the establishment of regulatory intermediaries, and the creation of a policing college. Its main proposal is to encourage broad use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) about policing. CBA, though prominently used in other areas of government, is almost non-existent in the field of policing. Adoption of some combination of some of these tools is essential to ensure just, effective public safety.
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