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Policing the Police
Cops and the Cult of Accountability
Megan McArdle is skeptical of some elements of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement’s newly-released plan for regulating the police. She points out that it is extremely difficult for external regulators to effectively manage and control the behavior of professionals—like doctors, lawyers, and police—without creating unintended consequences that ultimately harm the public interest. A snippet of McArdle’s piece in Bloomberg View:

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.

For a deeper dive into the history of professional “accountability” in America, check out Jerry Z. Muller’s essay in the latest issue of The American Interest. Muller shows that public policy—and management practices in the private sector—has been driven by a distrust of professionals for a long time, and by the conviction that professionals can be adequately measured. Efforts to measure closely monitor professionals, like some of the initiatives in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ policy outline, have been fashionable on the right and the left alike for a good part of the 20th century, and have grown more popular than ever in the 21st:

Today, “accountability” and its kissing cousins “metrics” and “performance indicators” seem to be, if not on every lip, then on every piece of legislation, and certainly on every policy memo in the Western world. In business, government, non-profit organizations, and education, “accountability” has become a ubiquitous meme—a pattern that repeats itself endlessly, albeit with thousands of localized variations.

The characteristic feature of the culture of accountability is the aspiration to replace judgment with standardized measurement. Judgment is understood as personal, subjective, and self-interested; metrics are supposed to provide information that is hard and objective. The strategy behind the numbers is to improve institutional efficiency by offering rewards to those whose metrics are highest or whose benchmarks have been reached, and by punishing those who fall behind relative to them. Policies based on these assumptions have been on the march for decades, hugely enabled in recent years by dramatic technological advances, and as the ever-rising slope of the Ngram graphs indicate, their assumed truth goes marching on.

The attractions of accountability metrics are apparent. Yet like every culture, the culture of accountability has carved out its own unquestioned sacred space and, as with all arguments from presumed authority, possesses its characteristic blind spots.

Muller goes on to cite specific instances when such metrics for professionals have created perverse incentives, with ruinous effects—in education (No Child Left Behind led schools to teach to the test, without improving overall student performance), in medicine (“surgical report cards” led some surgeons to turn away sicker patients), and in policing (police reliance on arrest statistics as a marker of competence has led police to pursue low-level teenage drug dealers rather than the drug lords at the top of the pyramid). Muller’s argument is not that there is no place for accountability metrics—but rather, that they should be deployed with caution, and in addition to—not instead of—old-fashioned experience and judgment.

Ultimately, while policymakers can make use of metrics to hold professionals accountable, our best hope is to try to cultivate high-quality professional classes, composed of diligent people who self-monitor and perform complicated tasks out of professional pride (even as, of course, the authorities monitor the professionals for any serious abuses). As the debate about police accountability intensifies, McArdle and Mullers’ essays make good companion pieces. Read them both.
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  • FriendlyGoat

    Well, do police departments have a metric to measure how many times an officer has coached a ne’er-do-well out of actually doing crime, or how many times an officer has talked a minor-crime victim out of pressing charges, or how many times an officer has refused to write a seat belt ticket—opting to always issue only seat belt warnings, never tickets?

    If the mayor and the chief have decided that the only metrics which count are arrest statistics and ticket revenue—-AND—they are forcing that nonsense onto the middle managers who then harass the officers, then OF COURSE the culture is going to be bad going worse.

    We recently read that the morale of the working environment at Amazon is rather sick. It was big news for a few days, surprising Amazon customers. How many police departments do we now have suffering from something similar with citizens just rather clueless as to what is wrong?

    • Boritz

      The police productivity metrics are number of arrests plus number of citations issued plus number of hours spent on patrol plus number of hours spent at the desk. For office workers in other fields it is usually only the last item.

      • FriendlyGoat

        And this is why we often don’t like our officers. If “management” insists they constantly hassle the citizens, we need to kick management’s butt.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The only way to improve the Government Monopoly is to limit it to only those tasks which only it can perform (Defense, Foreign Relations, Justice), and have the free market do everything else. The Police could be contracted out to more than one company, and for short one year contracts. This would inject the “Feedback of Competition” which provides both the information and motivation which forces improvements in Quality, Service, and Price in free markets. The problem isn’t a lack of esprit de corps, the problem is that “police forces are monopolies”.

  • Greg Olsen

    The impulse here is to bring W. Edwards Deming’s statistical process control theories to police work (and much else in society). The unstated goal, particularly in medicine, is to de-professionalize the profession and turn it into the equivalent of assembly line work. Ditto policing.

    I was at NASA in 1992 when Dan Goldin brought TQM and a host of fashionable management paradigms from the 1980s to NASA. It may have been appropriate for the shuttle program, but I worked in a branch doing basic research on ecosystems and the application of remote sensing technology. The “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” mantra was heard everywhere. We ran around with time cards tracking each minute of the day, as if any of the measurement efforts were going to have any bearing on whether scientific discovery was going to be made. The system privileged technology over discovery. It isn’t unexpected that policing and medicine have seen adverse consequences of the managerial impulse.

    The managerial impulse is a direct response to failure though. Continuous improvement usually means layering on process to monitor and control behavior. Hence the focus on measurable metrics, accountability, outside review boards, etc. Processes are put in place to prevent failure from happening again. In policing and medicine, failure may involve deaths, hence the urgency of the drive. ” If we can just routinize the work, fewer people will die,” says the regulator. Epistemic limits are never acknowledged by the regulator unfortunately. That humility would temper the drive and lead us to better public policy in these matters.

    • Maynerd

      As an MD, I totally agree with your perspective and share a similar experience. TQM, Toyota Production System, six sigma yada yada are well intentioned but relatively ineffectual. The layers of management and hours devoted to these methods yield little.

      Unfortunately the quality challenge is compounded by the mega-trend of large health care systems employing physicians. As the doctors become little more than employed “health care providers” expect the oblige to decline in parallel with the noblisse.

  • JR

    I am not an expert in psychology or different management techniques. But it seems we are overcomplicating things a bit with the whole cops and accountability thing.When you have more pro-police policies, you have less murders. When you have less pro-police policies, you have more murders. Everything else is neither here nor there. I just find it grimly funny, and not at all surprising, that the biggest proponents of anti-police sentiment are politicians who claim to represent “the poor”, “neighborhoods of color”, etc etc etc. The fact that increase in murders we see now is almost exclusively felt in these very same neighborhoods seems to escape their notice.

  • jeburke

    Say what you will but there are few if any jobs where this sort of thing can happen anytime. And it happens thousands of times every year.

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