Can the protests get results?

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Micromanaging Cops? 'Black Lives Matter' Can Try

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Up until now, the Black Lives Matter movement has been strong on generating protest, but weak on generating actionable demands. This is a common problem among grassroots movements. It's what ultimately led to Occupy being sidelined, joining a long list of movements that mobilized people, but then lacked a direction for them to go.

Black Lives Matter, by contrast, has just released a 10-part agenda with the goal of building "a world where the police don't kill people." How? "By limiting police interventions, improving community interactions, and ensuring accountability."

Here's the agenda:

  • End "broken windows" policing
  • Community oversight of police forces
  • Limit the use of force by police
  • Independently investigate and prosecute officers
  • Community representation, with police forces that are demographically closer to the communities they serve
  • Body cams
  • Better training for police officers
  • End "for-profit policing," in which communities use fines as a substitute for taxes and police departments get revenue from asset forfeiture
  • Demilitarize police forces
  • Change police contracts to end special protections for officers under investigation

Fundamentally, they're trying to answer a problem that has perplexed society for a long time: How do we send police out to control crime (which, we should remember, disproportionately affects minorities and the poor), while holding them accountable for not misusing the considerable power we've vested in them? It's a life-and-death version of a broader question economists and business-school types have wrestled with: How do you manage professionals? Unfortunately, so far no one has come up with great answers.

Since police are not usually thought of as members of the professional class, let me define what I mean by a professional: someone who does a lot of work unsupervised, and whose output is important, yet hard to measure. Professionals tend to deal with some of the most sensitive and important issues that our society has, like treating illness and educating our children. It's no accident that these people generally end up being regulated by their peers -- and that the rest of us are frequently unsatisfied with the results. When professional groups decide what's good for the rest of us, it usually turns out that what they think is good for the rest of us is what's best for them.

This doesn't have to be nakedly venal, and it often isn't. College professors genuinely care about their students, lawyers about their clients, doctors about their patients, journalists about their readers, and yes, police care about the communities they serve.  But when a proposal comes up that will hurt them in some way, it's very easy for the professionals to see all the reasons against it, and to convince themselves that the world will be better off without it. And when it comes time to discipline a member for some offense, unless it is straightforwardly heinous, they will naturally sympathize with the accused, thinking of all the times they made mistakes that could have landed them in the same place. 

The alternative seems obvious: Don't let them regulate themselves. The Black Lives Matter proposal calls for two strong civilian oversight boards that do not include any police representatives, former cops or family members of cops. These boards would no doubt be tough on cops. But there's a small problem, which is that you would have a board that has, at best, a 50 percent understanding of policing: The members might know what it is to be policed, but they will not know what it is to police. Excluding people with knowledge of the system from your regulatory board is not a formula for good decision making. If you constitute such a body, you are asking for open conflict with your police force, which will justifiably resent being told that they did their jobs wrong, all the more so if the charge is coming from people who have never tried to do the job. Because police officers spend a lot of time operating unsupervised, and do not have measurable outputs other than the time they put in, they will have a lot of ways to rebel against perceived unfairness.

This is why professionals require a certain esprit de corps, a professional ethic, to do their job effectively and fairly. That ethic is supposed to keep them doing the right thing even when no one is looking, and it cannot be imposed from outside, because professional jobs are about judgment with imperfect information, and the only people who have ever tried to exercise such judgment are the professionals themselves.  At best you can substitute crude metrics that often backfire -- see, for example, David Simon's savage critique of what happened to Baltimore policing under Martin O'Malley. Or what happened when New York State started scoring cardiologists on how well their patients did: the cardiologists stopped taking risky patients who might mess up their numbers.

People who have never done the job have no way of assessing the trade-offs that professionals make when they try to do something, and they tend to be unforgiving when the professionals make errors, as humans sometimes do when they make decisions. And we definitely want police officers to make decisions. Good ones. A punitive oversight board pushes professionals toward a particular decision: to do nothing.

This problem has basically proven insoluble. You can put the professionals in charge of regulating themselves, as we have with doctors and lawyers, in which case they are self dealing and protect each other from outsiders, even when the outsiders have been grievously wronged. Or you can try to impose an outside regulator, in which case the regulator won't understand what they're regulating, and will pursue certain goals with no ability to assess the tradeoffs that must be made to reach them. So far, no one has discovered a third way. Particularly in the case of law enforcement, because they are the people who, well, investigate crimes. The proposed agenda suggests federalizing more allegations of police wrongdoing, but even if there weren't serious legal hurdles in the way of transferring powers from states to the federal government, we would still have to contend with the fact that the people reporting cases and collecting evidence are, of course, the local police.

Does that mean that the Black Lives Matter proposal is bad? Not at all. I think the suggestions range from "worthy of consideration" to "immediate moral imperative" (civil asset forfeiture, I am looking at you). But I have modest expectations for what the list is likely to achieve. At the end of the day, we still have to send police officers out to deal with our society's most desperate moments. We have to give police considerable powers to do this, and those powers are inherently susceptible to abuse. We can curtail the worst of the abuses, demand more oversight, give them more guidelines. We can second guess the decisions, and punish the bad ones. But police are professionals: They'll always be the ones making the life-and-death decisions that count.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net