Saturday, February 26, 2011

ECONOMICS OF POLICING: Holding police accountable – making street search paid.

Police exist to protect people and secure society. In order to do so, they need to have powers of search and seizure (S & S). To hold the police accountable, S & S are regulated by law.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides: 'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Since then, the United States Supreme Court has provided in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) that a police officer (PO) can stop and frisk a person in the street if he has a reasonable suspicion that the person had committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

But what if a PO is wrong? What if a PO searches 100 persons and net only one criminal? The PO is routinely wrong – 99% of the time, here!!!!

More troublesomely, what if one PO search 5 persons and comes up with 1 suspect and another PO searches 10 and comes up with none?

My experience as an officer is that street search rarely comes up with suspects or illegal goods, sufficient to justify the intrusion. But S & S does work in ending up wih arrests.

In most cases, street S & S is used to intimidate groups (black in US, gangs in Hong Kong), to show who is in charge (police own the street), to appease fearful public (esp. during crime wave), more so than to deter crime, still less to arrest criminals.

Lastly, how many S & S should be conducted by each PO during one shift? Or how many S & S should be allowed by a police department (PD) in solving a murder vs. rape vs. theft vs. national security case?

From experience and by practice, we know that police would not conduct too many S & S to net a thief but would tape everyone’s phone to net a terrorist. President Bush approved of warrantless search of ALL internet coming in and out of US immediately after 9/11. (Terrorist Surveillance Program)

Currently, the police powers of S & S are grossly abused. There is no systematic and comprehensive study and report of PO S & S hit rates. It would be interesting to compile and publish PO and PD S & S hit rates, as a productivity and accountability measure. Such S & S hit rates can also be used as competitive comparative scores, much like corporate P/E ratio.

More problematically, there is very little innocent citizens can do in the face of a wrong (unreasonable to citizen– reasonable to PO) S & S. Indiscriminate – discriminate TSA – airport searches come to mind. TSA searches millions of people a day. Usually nothing is found.

How can we hold PD and PO accountable in the way they conduct S & S operations?
How can we make PD and PO searches less and hits more? More importantly, how can citizens be protected from “unreasonable ” S & S even if there are legal reasons to search? What I call “unreasonable – reasonable” search.

The answer to the above questions is a simple one. We seek to regulate PO powers to search not only by law but also with economics. We wrongful believe that if the police have a right to search (based on reasonable suspicion), the police search is ipso facto a reasonable, i.e., justified. But a search with reason is not the same as effectiveness search. A reasonable search that turns up nothing is as instructive to the citizen as the one which effective in getting a criminal.

My beginning assumption is that S and S have inherent and hidden costs to individuals (citizen and suspect)and society (police and public).

S & S costs are of two kinds.

First, it takes PO time to execute S & S. Thus, PO should make sure that their search is as productive as possible, each and every time. I was a corporate executive before – salesman is rewarded for productivity per customer transaction. Customers are annoyed by cold calls.

Currently there is no incentive for the PO to conduct cost effective searches. Instead, there is every incentive to conduct blind search to come up with the goods. Thus officers work on the principle that the more one search, the more one gets (blind hit syndrome.) Cost is not a concern.

Second, PO S & S have costs for innocent citizens, from time wasted to privacy deprived to embarrassment incurred. It is just not sufficient to impose cost of reasonable – reasonable searches on citizens, without compensation, other than to say: it is “citizens’ duty” or it is “bad luck” or “I am sorry.”

The solution is to apply economic principles to police work.

PO time is a fixed asset. If a PO searches A, he cannot search B, even if both are reasonably suspected. Which one of the two should a PO search? It depends on which of the two searches turns out to be more economically sound or productive, i.e. benefits (arrest) out weights costs (intrusion). In order to do so, PO should be told that S & S is not costless to PO or public (citizens).

How can we make society, PD and PO think about S & S costs in a meaning way? Before each shift, PD should issue each PO with a S & S coupon book. In the book, each coupon is worth $10 (more or less). That is the cost for the S & S to the PO, PD and society. Every time the PO conducts a search, the citizen would be given one or more S & S coupon, depending on intrusiveness and duration of search, e.g., frisk 1 coupon and search 2, five minutes search 1 couple, more than 5 minutes 2, etc.). In this way, PO has now an incentive to search against S & S coupons, issued for the night, week, and month.

Innocent citizens who are unreasonably – reasonably searched will be compensated.

PD knows how to budget PO time in a more cost effective manner. PO will conduct search in a more reasonable manner. Society is put on notice that powers of police and rights of citizens have actual costs.

If the above economic policing principle is applied to TSA – airport search, our society would realize that the cost of blanket airport search to citizens in the name of safety is unsustainable, or at least prohibitively high. Then the TSA would have more incentive to rethink about productivity and effectiveness of such an approach to secure the airport

What do you think?

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