How to Prevent the Next Ferguson

Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson addresses the crowd of protesters on Aug. 14 in Ferguson Photograph by David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP Photo

The clash between police and citizens in Ferguson, Mo., highlights an American dilemma about law enforcement. After the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over policing on Thursday night, the streets of Ferguson became considerably more peaceful than they had been under the watch of St. Louis County police.

As the crisis has starkly illustrated, we’ve been increasing the power of every police force in terms of weapons, authority, impact, and indemnity. But the quality of policing hasn’t always kept up with the elevated power—nor has our ability to test and improve that quality. The U.S. should look to other countries for techniques of measuring police probity and foster reforms to strengthen the caliber of the nation’s law enforcement system.

Military-style SWAT teams were deployed 45,000 times across the U.S. last year, and thanks to Department of Defense donation programs, the police have access to ever more heavy equipment. Some 500 law enforcement agencies—including Ohio State University—are now proud owners of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, for example. The enhanced weaponry has contributed to the increasing lethality of U.S. law enforcement: The FBI estimates that 410 people were killed by U.S. law enforcement officers in the line of duty in 2012. The same statistic for the U.K. is one person.

Alongside increased armament, police have been given wider authority over the past 15 years: the spread of no-knock warrants, where police enter premises without warning (in numerous cases leading to a firefight with innocent victims), and the powers granted under the Patriot Act. The penal system has also become increasingly harsh. Three-strikes laws and other minimum sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms for those found guilty of an offense. Finally, police officers’ indemnity remains considerable: Their contracts tend to ensure gentle treatment over potential offenses, such as a cool-off period before officers are required to make a statement and long administrative procedures before they can be suspended or dismissed.

The great majority of police are upstanding—doing the best job they can, often in dangerous circumstances—but the U.S. lacks tools to ensure that every officer acts ethically without discrimination or corruption. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, 7 percent of Americans who’ve had contact with the police in the past year claim they paid a bribe to a police officer. Most troubling, there’s evidence that too many police are misusing or abusing that power, particularly when it comes to race.

In New York, for example, the stop-and-frisk program expanded, leading to almost 700,000 cases in 2011 in which police with “reasonable suspicion” stopped, interrogated, and patted down people across the city. Four out of 10 of those stops involved black and Latino males aged 14 to 24–a group that makes up less than one-twentieth of the city’s population. (The program is currently the subject of an appeals court case over its constitutionality, and the number of stop-and-frisks has dramatically declined over the past year.) Analysis by John Donohue of Stanford University and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago found that the more white police are hired by police departments, the higher the arrest rate for nonwhites climbs, while the rate of arrests for whites stays constant. (Similarly, Donohue and Levitt found, hiring more nonwhites leads to an increase in the white arrest rate.) In Boston, officers are more likely to search a car if the race of the officer and driver are different.

The problem of rogue and biased policemen is considerably larger in the developing world. In South Africa at the start of the last decade, a little more than 500 people died as a result of police action every year—per capita, that’s about eight times the police-action death rate of the U.S. In India, 62 percent of those who’ve been in contact with the police over the past year say they paid a bribe to a police officer or official; in Nigeria the proportion reaches four out of five. If you look at surveys of corruption victimization, the police usually rank as some of the most corrupt public officials worldwide.

Nonetheless, there are things the U.S. can learn from the developing world—and India and South Africa in particular—when it comes to reducing police misconduct.  South Africa’s Independent Complaints Directorate, for example, fully tracks cases where police kill suspects—unlike the U.S., where the FBI relies on voluntary reporting. Like good research on gun deaths, the politicization of data on law enforcement in the U.S. means less information is available to analyze the causes and responses to police misconduct.

The Indian state of Rajasthan has used crime surveys and decoy visits (in which hired actors tried to report fictitious crimes) as part of an effort to evaluate reforms designed to improve the quality of policing. The research suggested that additional training and freezing transfers between police stations both were effective in reducing fear and increasing trust of the police among citizens.

Some U.S. police departments have tried similar measures. The New York Police Department, and departments in Los Angeles and New Orleans, have randomly tested officers by presenting them with the opportunity to take a bribe or steal money or drugs and watching to see if they do it. In a common example, Internal Affairs Bureau testers will claim to have found a wallet stuffed with cash and hand it to a police officer. The good news in New York is that hardly any officers fail the test. What’s unclear is whether this is a sign of honesty or a result of police recognizing it as a common test.

Rajasthan’s experiment wasn’t just about catching the odd dishonest cop—it used random testing to evaluate approaches to make all police officers do their job better. It’s about time police forces from New York to St. Louis followed suit. Perhaps a start would be to use data to see if there’s evidence of considerable racial bias—longer wait times, less likelihood of registering a crime, or a different likelihood of keeping “found” wallets containing pictures of black kids than white kids. Police should more systematically test which approaches—greater citizen oversight, training, or other interventions—help reduce disparities and then share that information in a more transparent way. If we’re to give the police such extraordinary power over the lives of U.S. citizens, we should go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that power is used responsibly.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.