Why the World Needs Fewer Cops

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., highlights how predatory policing has reduced trust in law enforcement in many parts of the U.S. Court fines (mostly connected with traffic violations) are worth 20 percent of Ferguson’s general-fund revenue. That’s considerably more than property tax revenue and about two-thirds sales tax revenue. The police force accounts for 41 percent of the city’s expenses, suggesting fines are worth about one-half of the police budget. The incentives that such a system created to fine people overzealously were one factor behind the dismal state of relations between locals and cops in the city even before the death of Michael Brown.

There is a similar problem globally, of police taking money from citizens to supplement their income. The difference in many developing countries is that the system more often involves straightforward bribes (often passed on to superiors) rather than fines recycled through local government budgets. But the impact is the same. The problem of predatory policing is so severe it suggests that the police have a very limited role in actually deterring crime or catching offenders in large parts of the developing world. In countries rich and poor, the best response may be fewer cops operating with less incentive to maximize police revenue.

Developing and developed countries tend to have similar numbers of police officers as a percentage of the population. But that broad parity in the number of police isn’t matched by how often people come into contact with them. Transparency International surveys people to ask if they have been in contact with the police over the past year. In countries poorer than Brazil (which has an income per capita of about $14,500), 31 percent of the population report police contact, compared with 19 percent in richer economies. In developing countries such as Uganda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe, more than half of the population has had contact with the police over the past year, a proportion unmatched in any rich country.

When people in developing countries encounter a policeman, they’re less likely to be subject to formalities. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime tracks “formal contact” with police—people cautioned, investigated, or arrested. Countries poorer than Brazil see 704 formal contacts per 100,000 citizens, compared with 1,711 in countries richer than that. A more ubiquitous police presence, in other words, doesn’t lead to more formal investigations or arrests. Despite the fact that more than half of the population had contact with a policeman in Uganda over the past year, for example, the country sees only 167 “formal” contacts per 100,000—well below the developing-country average.

If the police aren’t fining, arresting, or investigating, they must be doing something else. The benign interpretation is that their very presence simply deters crime. But there is another explanation for the lack of relationship between presence and formal contact. In Uganda, about 69 percent of those who report contact with the police over the past year also report they paid a bribe to them. The police aren’t fighting crime; they’re shaking down citizens instead.

In countries including Uganda, South Africa, Mexico, Thailand, Nigeria, and Indonesia, more people pay a bribe to a policeman every year than to any other government service provider including health professionals, teachers, utility workers, the judiciary, or tax and land records officers. Police are the most common or second most common bribe recipients in 38 out of 107 countries that Transparency International surveys.

In many countries, for example, police set up roadblocks with the sole intent of revenue generation. Just as in Ferguson, police in places like Aceh, Indonesia, garner significant revenues from traffic control. A survey of 304 trucking trips across the region conducted by Harvard economist Benjamin Olken suggested that the average journey involved around 20 payments to officers manning roadblocks, which added up to 13 percent of transport costs. When the military withdrew from the region and took their control posts with them, total bribe payments went down while the average amount collected at police checkpoints climbed. The local police apparently fully understood the economics of revenue maximization.

Such pervasive corruption prevents the police force from carrying out its main duty: stopping crime. Evidence from crime victimization surveys suggests victims are particularly susceptible to police corruption, with a bribery rate more than twice that of nonvictims. In Liberia, survey evidence suggests that less than half of all crimes are reported to any authority—either local chiefs or the “official” system. With assault or property theft it is a little under one half, but even with murder it reaches only 56 percent. Crime victimization surveys suggest that about 56 percent of victims report offenses to the police in North America, compared with 37 percent in Africa and only 23 percent in Latin America.

The available evidence suggests that the police remain a considerable source of corruption in the U.S., as well. Transparency International surveys suggest that 7 percent of Americans who say they had contact with police over the past year report paying a bribe. The considerable majority of cops in the U.S. are honest and trying to do a good job—including in New York City, where corruption allegations have considerably declined since 1996. But that’s also what makes the problem of fine-chasing so corrosive. It pressures an honest police officer to act all too much like one out for the take. It almost appears designed to destroy trust in the police force.

There are ways to reduce both bribe-based and fine-based police predation. When it comes to straightforward corruption in rich and poor countries alike, paying a bribe to a police officer should be decriminalized (to encourage reporting) while receiving a bribe should be automatic grounds for being sacked and incarcerated. And in the many countries where large numbers report paying bribes to policemen, the solution may be to reduce the number of police officers. Even in the U.S., where corrupt cops are the exception, the police in cities like Ferguson would be far more effective without the officers that are financed by fines, because that would reduce the pressure to put predatory officers on the beat. A cop’s job is to serve and protect. We shouldn’t pressure them to fleece and intimidate.

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