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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