Bryan Caplan  

Go Fight Some Real Crime: Why Doubling the Police Is Unreasonable

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Tyler Cowen often calls Alex Tabarrok the best truth-tracker in Carow Hall.  With good reason.  When I ask Alex questions, he's consistently careful, direct, and accurate.  When I investigate his assertions, they check out.  I trust Alex - even when he tells me things I don't want to believe.

When Alex says that police have a large effect on violent and property crime, therefore, I believe him.  I haven't read the papers he cites, but I'm confident that if I read them, I'd be satisfied by Alex's evaluation of the state of human knowledge about the effect of police on crime. 

Still, when Alex says the following, I can't agree:
Using a range of reasonable elasticity estimates from the new literature and a back of the envelope calculation, Klick and I argue that it would not be unreasonable to double the number of police officers in the United States.
On the contrary, doubling the number of police officers in the United States to reduce violent and property is extremely unreasonable.  Why?  Because there are already lots of police on the payroll who focus on victimless crime.  These police aren't just wasting taxpayer dollars.  By enforcing latter-day Prohibition, these police are actually making violent and property crime worse.

I'm not making a libertarian point, just a pragmatic one.  In the unspoken words of everyone who's ever gotten a bogus ticket, "Why don't you guys go arrest some actual criminals?"  Before we spend another dime on more police, we should redeploy all existing police to fight real crimes with real victims. 

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Finch writes:

> By enforcing latter-day Prohibition, these police
> are actually making violent and property crime
> worse.

I'm sympathetic to this view, but if it was really the case wouldn't it show up in the referenced analysis? It seems like this effect is more than offset by the positives.

This lines up well with the sometimes-made argument that many of the folks in jail for drug offenses are really there for being violent criminals, but the drug charges are easier to make stick. Now I really don't like the "bring me the man and I'll find the crime" society this engenders, but that doesn't mean it's not a real phenomena. Are a bunch of mild wrongs adding up to a big right?

Joe Cushing writes:

I completely agree. we live in a "show me the man, I'll find you the crime" society AKA a "three felonies a day" society. The more police there are, the more likely they are to be digging into non-crimes and non-infractions and just harassing good people. Also, police bring a lot of violence to society themselves--often onto innocent people and their innocent dogs. They don't make me feel safe as they suffer from bad incentives and poor accountability. You're more likely to be killed by a cop than by a terrorist. Even when the police aren't being violent, they treat people with disrespect and a total disregard for the notion that they might be good people. I definitely don't want more of them.

Joe Cushing writes:

Interesting, that I wrote that comment at the same time as the one above was being posted and we both invoked the same concept. Except I am much more firmly against the idea.

nholzric writes:

@Finch, I aspire to be as pragmatic as the next guy but I am uncomfortable with a status quo relying on "a bunch of mild wrongs".

It is necessary to reduce the number of "victimless crimes" on the books, not only will this eliminate the justification for police officers to enforce "victimless crimes" but if we don't want police to enforce them I suspect the laws themselves are unjust.

Finch writes:

FWIW, I'd legalize and accept the consequences. I think that's the ethically superior choice.

I think the difference of opinion between myself and Bryan is that I believe there would be negative consequences, particularly for the black population. I think the cited work supports that.

nholzric writes:

Bryan's suggest is radical (and nearly impossible IMO), to "redeploy all existing police to fight real crimes with real victims."

@Finch, are the negative consequences you're concerned about caused by no police officers enforcing "victimless crimes" or caused by a reality where you can never get "all existing police to fight real crimes" and therefore to reduce the police force is to reduce the police fighting "real crime"?

Finch writes:

I think legalization would lead to more drug use and associated violence and property crime, not less. I guess I think crack and alcohol are different. And I suspect the history of prohibition has been written by the victors.

I think the cited work supports this. When you have more enforcement of our admittedly lousy laws, you get less violence and property crime. When you throw a violent thug in jail for possession, that helps, even if possession really doesn't warrant jail.

I'm open to being convinced otherwise on this. I sort of feel like you ought to be able to wreck your own life if you want. I would prefer that your actions not impinge upon me. If legalization would cause violence to spread broadly instead of being confined to particular neighborhoods, I'd be more concerned.

Jack writes:


This was a GREAT post and I could not agree with you more on this. In fact, this totally makes up for all your misguided natalist views. ;-)

Doug writes:


Cocaine, including free-base cocaine (a.k.a. crack), was legal and widely distributed circa 1900 in the United States. Crime rates were far lower than they are today. Furthermore the major intoxicant associated with criminality then was alcohol, not cocaine.

So, why is that today crack smokers seem far more unstable, violent, addicted, and irresponsible than beer drinkers?

The causality runs in the other direction. It's not that cocaine, or smoked cocaine in particular, makes one extremely volatile. In fact free-base cocaine actually used to the providence of wealthy upper-class doctors around 1900 (whereas powdered cocaine was more associated with laborers).

It's that cocaine, and crack in particular, is one of the most harshly prohibited intoxicants in modern society. In a legalized world I'd suspect that virtually all of the marginal users of cocaine would be casual users. An analogy is how many college students today are casual cocaine users, the vast majority of whom never develop any problems and drop the habit when they get older. From a qualitative perspective cocaine intoxication is not significantly different than a few strong cups of coffee.

But there's a certain class of people with a pre-disposition to mental illness and instability. For these people intoxicants are a route to self-medication. The majority of addicts, and the vast majority of violent, unstable and irresponsible addicts fall into this category.

These are also the people least likely to be dissuaded by harsh prohibition policies. If the situation was reversed and cocaine was widely available, and alcohol was as harshly prohibited as cocaine you would see the opposite. Most cocaine users would indulge in limited amounts, occasionally and responsible. Whereas a much higher proportion of people who went to the black market for gin would be inveterate alcoholics with a history of mental illness.

Finch writes:

> Crime rates were far lower than they are today.

Two minutes with Google shows this is incorrect. Crime rates in 1900 were higher than today, though the precise extent to which that is true is hard to measure. There was a recent higher peak around 1985 at the height of the crack problem.

Also, a lot was different in America in 1900 that may also bear on crime rates, so I don't think this is a clean natural experiment even though it favors my argument.

nholzric writes:

The issue isn't whether or not legalization of drugs reduces crime.

The issue Finch brought up is whether or not it is worth enforcing "victimless crimes" to the extent that it catches bad guys - who also perpetrate crimes with victims.

Finch writes:

Thanks nholzric. I want to repeat that it is my personal feeling that this is wrong, or at least a very risky path for society. But it appears that when everything is netted out, it reduces more serious crime. One point is a values question, the other is an empirical question.

> By enforcing latter-day Prohibition, these police
> are actually making violent and property crime
> worse.

This, in particular, seems to be incorrect. When we raise the level of enforcement of our current basket of laws (many of which seem bad), we get less serious crime, even when most of the enforcement is not directly engaging with serious crime.

Joe Cushing writes:

"The issue Finch brought up is whether or not it is worth enforcing "victimless crimes" to the extent that it catches bad guys - who also perpetrate crimes with victims."

The problem is that the drug war crates "bad guys." Most of the bad guys associated with drugs are that way because they are in a business that is illegal and that falls outside of contract law. This means they have to use extra legal means to enforce contracts. Also, when a criminal organization grows, it takes on other functions of government besides contract enforcement. This would include territory management and taxation. This is where you get turf wars and protection money.

It's a little backwards to say legalizing drugs reduces crime. It's better to say that making drugs illegal creates crime.

Jason Malloy writes:

"I think legalization would lead to more drug use and associated violence and property crime, not less."

Relevant evidence from the "Portuguese experiment" (PDF):

"This paper examines the case of Portugal, a nation that decriminalized the use and possession of all illicit drugs on 1 July 2001... It concludes that contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use. Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding."

Doug writes:

"Two minutes with Google shows this is incorrect. Crime rates in 1900 were higher than today"

You must only be looking at homicide rates. You cannot compare homicide rates across periods when emergency and trauma medicine are different. Homicides have gone down a lot because ERs are far better at treating gunshot, knifing and beating victims today than they were in 1900. Consider two societies, one where 1000 people get shot, but the ERs save 900 and one where 100 get shot but all die. Are you really telling me that they have equivalent crime rates?

A better measure than homicide across time are rapes, robberies, burglaries and property crimes. Here is a paper detailing crime trends from the UK between 1900 and 1997. The total number of indictable offenses rose from 2.4 per 1,000 in 1900 to 89.1 per 1,000 in 1997. That's a rise of 3700% in crime. You'll notice during the same period homicide only rose by 50%.

That goes to show that contra Pinker homicide rates are not reliable measures of crime across time periods with different medical technologies. Robberies, burglaries, rapes and property crimes all substantially increased, and are truer measures because their incidence rate is not dependent on ER skill.

Floccina writes:

I think we need fewer laws (legalize all drugs, prostitution and gambling) and more police.

Floccina writes:

I meant to say more and better police.

MingoV writes:

None of the papers I've read about drug legalization described an increase in violent crimes or property crimes. Violent crimes decreased because gangs were no longer fighting over the business. Drug prices fell, so users were less likely to steal to buy them. Drug intoxication-related crimes decreased partly because legalized drugs were distributed at constant quality and purity.

nholzric writes:


What do you mean by "better police"?

Jack writes:

Perhaps what we need to do is bust the police unions and then we can hire more cops AND make them more accountable.

egd writes:

Joe Cushing writes:

It's a little backwards to say legalizing drugs reduces crime. It's better to say that making drugs illegal creates crime.

Both of those are true, almost by definition.

When you legalize an action you reduce illegal acts (crime).

When you make actions illegal you increase illegal acts (crime).

I don't know why we should stop at victimless crimes. There are plenty of low-impact violent crimes that waste money. How much money and resources are spent to capture, prosecute and prevent people who violate traffic laws?

Sean writes:
You cannot compare homicide rates across periods when emergency and trauma medicine are different.

Historical criminologists are well aware of this issue and have ways to control for it.

For example: some percentage of victims perish from their injuries immediately. No amount of modern medicine could save them.

Doug writes:


A far simpler measure than homicides are rapes. This criminal metric almost perfectly captures how unsafe the streets are to the average citizen. Assaults and robberies could either be predator-on-predator (e.g. gangsters robbing each other or bar fights) or predator-on-prey (e.g. an old man getting attacked in a game of "Knock-out king").

Rape is always predator-on-prey crime. It captures to a very exact degree how unsafe it is for a weak member of society to walk the streets alone at night. Which is pretty much what everyone thinks about when they refer to a given place as "safe" or "dangerous." A society like Tudor England where dueling is a common hobby may have a high homicide rate, but still be completely safe to a person who chooses to not get involved.

On this matter we don't need to resort to any fancy historical adjustments. We can simply see how common rapes were in 1900 versus today. All we have to do is look at the newspapers:

"[In the late 19th century] Violent rape by strangers, or possibly gang rape, often was front-page news a century ago but rarely makes it out of the police reports of the 1990's"

Ken B writes:

First, I strongly agree with Bryan. But I see a hole in the argument: Broken Windows. Many broken windows arrests are for victimless crimes and drugs, yet seem to have a strong effect on serious crime.

Maximum Liberty writes:

There is a public-choice school argument we are missing here. I would guess that, of the officer-hours in any city police force, a majority are spent on traffic patrol and speed traps. That is, thhey are looking for infractions. I understand that they often catch people who have open warrants, and spot drunk drivers, etc. But let's assume that they could catch the same number of serious offenders by re-deploying those cops to folllowing up on open warrants, night patrols through neighbothoods, etc. Go with me here: I said assume it.

The problem becomes that such a redployment dramatically lowers city revenue. Those speeding tickets are a big source of city funding. I would guess that most cities are in the part of a Laffer-like curve where they could actually raise revenues by employing more officers on traffic patrol. Presumably, the reason that they don't is because the marginal cost of the additional officers would be less than the marginal marginal revenue from more tickets. Or there could be other political reasons.

Any similar redeployment of police personnel coudl have similar effects. Often first-time drug offenders pay a hefty fee to enroll in some kind of drug rehabilitation program. The government gets a fee and a private contractor also gets a fee. There might be a probation department that also levies a fee.

One approach to all of this is that bringing in revenues from criminals is a great form of taxation because I know I won't be paying it. But that assumes that I attach no value on the liberty to do the things that raise these revenues, even if I would not do them myself in the absence of their prohibition.


Eli writes:

I love the link back to Jeffrey Miron's work. I wish he gave more talks, I love the ones he has on the internet.

Eric Evans writes:
"Many broken windows arrests are for victimless crimes and drugs, yet seem to have a strong effect on serious crime."

Care to actually substantiate that claim?

Sean writes:


That may very well be true, but it doesn't affect my point, which was specifically about historical homicide rates.

Here's something else: why cocaine and why 1900? Why not, e.g., morphine/thebaine/codeine in the form of opium, and 1600 when, according to historical criminologists, violent crime rates (and presumably rates of other crimes, to the extent that they are correlated) were far, far higher than they are today?

This is not to say I agree with Finch. I think that any positive effect drug use has on crime is small and more than overwhelmed by that associated with prohibition. Still, we have to resist the urge to cherry pick our data and argue from overly simplistic correlations.

Chris Thomas writes:

If anyone doubts that more law enforcement can RAISE crime rates (when focused on latter-day prohibition), read the summary of this meta study:

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