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Government Police "Services" in a Nutshell

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04/29/2015

Police justify killings like that of Freddy Gray's on the grounds that such aggressive tactics are necessary to protect lives and property. But when widespread destruction of property, and threats to life and limb appear, the police are breathtakingly inefficient. 

Of course, we still know little about the death of Gray because the police refuse to take any responsibility. On the other hand, they also refuse to take responsibility for accomplishing their primary mission which is supposed to involve keeping nursing homes and pharmacies from being burned down by arsonists and looters. 

Just as with the riots in Ferguson, protection of life and property suddenly becomes the responsibility of the private sector which had already been taxed for "protection." 

One is forced to wonder about the total amount of tax revenue that had been taken from Maryland and Baltimore taxpayers over the years in the name of providing "essential" police services. What service is actually being provided? 

What we find in practice is a bizarre disconnect. The police are ever present when they can collect revenue for the city with impunity, or when they outnumber suspects and face few risks to their personal safety, or when they can descend with assault rifles and SWAT teams on small time pot dealers. Once the situation becomes more challenging, it's another matter entirely. 

Naturally, the government has an excuse lined up:

"The mayor of Baltimore had the city of Baltimore police on the ground. Quite frankly, they were overwhelmed." 

They were "overwhelmed," they say. With this, the Baltimore government admits that it is incapable of providing protection in crisis situations. And yet, that same government — which has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation — insists that it must have a monopoly on the means for protecting life and property. So law abiding citizens are trapped between a rock and hard place. They are forced to pay for police protection that is AWOL at crucial times, and they also pay for a police force that also instigates violence through its own negligence, as in the case of the Freddy Gray. Then, when the taxpayers find they're on their own for personal defense, they've already been disarmed.

Don't expect the police to suffer any consequences after this latest failure, however. In fact, they're likely to get more money in next year's budget. 

One can only imagine how a private security firm with a similar record of "success" might fare in the marketplace. 

UPDATE: In this excellent interview, David Simon, who has researched policing with former homicide detectives, notes that in Baltimore, as well as elsewhere, police are rewarded for small-time loitering arrests and other petty, inefficient work while investigations or serious crimes are neglected: 

How do you reward cops? Two ways: promotion and cash. That's what rewards a cop. If you want to pay overtime pay for having police fill the jails with loitering arrests or simple drug possession or failure to yield, if you want to spend your municipal treasure rewarding that, well the cop who’s going to court 7 or 8 days a month — and court is always overtime pay — you're going to damn near double your salary every month. On the other hand, the guy who actually goes to his post and investigates who's burglarizing the homes, at the end of the month maybe he’s made one arrest. It may be the right arrest and one that makes his post safer, but he's going to court one day and he's out in two hours. So you fail to reward the cop who actually does police work. But worse, it’s time to make new sergeants or lieutenants, and so you look at the computer and say: Who's doing the most work? And they say, man, this guy had 80 arrests last month, and this other guy’s only got one. Who do you think gets made sergeant? And then who trains the next generation of cops in how not to do police work? I’ve just described for you the culture of the Baltimore police department amid the deluge of the drug war, where actual investigation goes unrewarded and where rounding up bodies for street dealing, drug possession, loitering such – the easiest and most self-evident arrests a cop can make – is nonetheless the path to enlightenment and promotion and some additional pay.

In other words, the system is set up to reward police for small-time petty harassment of local citizens while the serious and tedious work of investigating truly dangerous criminals goes undone. Every businessman knows this. If your shop or office is robbed or burgled, you know you'll never see your property again.  Calling the police is a mere formality for the insurance company. The police come and fill out a report. They leave soon thereafter, however, because they have a busy day of ticketing jaywalkers and loiterers ahead of them. Although you have paid via taxes for police protection, they are in no way accountable to you for their lack of providing actual services. Thus, there is no incentive to address true property crime. 

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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