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Police Departments Overflowing with Extra Time, Money

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01/06/2016

Many police departments are over-funded and overstaffed. What other conclusion can we reach when we read about operations like this one in a Kansas City suburb where sheriff's deputies had the time and resources to keep track of everyone shopping at a gardening center in order to find someone to bust for growing marijuana?

Apparently, in Johnson County, Kansas, the Sheriff's Department is so flush with extra time and money that it can send deputies to sit in parking lots and monitor the actions of complete strangers (i.e., people who have given no prior cause for suspicion) just on the off chance that they might buy something "suspicious" at the garden center.

In this case, deputies staked out in the parking lot observed some suburban teens buying hydroponics for a school project. Weeks later, the local SWAT team raided the home and searched for drugs while pointing guns at the heads of children.

The SWAT team produced nothing, and it turns out the timing and purpose of the whole effort was to create a public relations stunt in which the department raids multiple families on April 20 or "4/20" and then issues a press release about it. 

Scarcity and Priorities

Is there so little crime in Johnson County that law enforcement officers have nothing better to do than violently harass suburban families who are obviously no danger to anyone? 

And, if there isn't much crime, why is there such a large, well-funded law enforcement agency collecting salaries? 

By "crime" of course, I mean real crime such as burglary, robbery, rape, assault, and murder. Whether or not someone is growing a plant in his basement somewhere in a neighboring housing development is hardly a concern. 

However, even if one thinks that growing marijuana should be illegal, most reasonable people can agree that it should be a priority to address real crime like theft and assault before spending the day sitting around in a garden-center parking lot. 

Police departments like to claim that they are required to enforce "all laws" but this is a silly refrain that only a child would find convincing. In real life, any enterprise, whether public or private, is restrained by budgetary limitations — which means we must prioritize. Private organizations are restrained by how much others are willing to voluntarily give them, whether in trade or in charity. But even government agencies are restrained by the political will to expand their budgets. (Even the Fed, in spite of its ability to create money, is constrained by political will.)

So, in a world of limited resources, there's no such thing as enforcing "all laws." The police know this, of course. They simply use the "all laws" refrain as a means of distracting the easily-fooled. 

So, given their limited resources, even in places with few homicides, should not police focus on recovering stolen property and tracking down every last lead in assault and rape cases? Well, there's no real incentive to do this, as everyone who has ever had his home or small business burglarized knows. In the wake of a burglary, calling the police is a mere formality for the insurance company. The local law enforcement agents are not going to try very hard to recover your property. 

Policing and Incentives

What law enforcement agencies will do instead is engage in investigations that are likely to benefit the department and its officers either political or monetarily. 

At the departmental level, this means that departments will focus on drug cases that may lead to monetary gain through asset forfeiture. They will also pursue investigations that benefit the department politically, such as harassing political enemies, or pursuing high profile cases that make the department look good. 

At the level of the individual officer, officers will pursue cases that allow them to pad their records with easy arrests and solved cases. Pursuing more difficult harder-to-solve cases will do little to benefit the officer at evaluation time. In this interview with policing researcher David Simon, he notes how incentives work at the officer level: 

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?

Certainly, outside of high profile murder, rape, or robbery cases in which the department can be subject to political pressure, law enforcement agencies do not suffer at all from unsolved real crime, and they certainly don't suffer if they fail to recover stolen property. The value of the lost property won't be coming out of their budgets. 

Instead, it's much easier to play games like making arrests on "4/20" and hang out in parking lots sipping coffee. 

The Specifics in Johnson County 

It should surprise no one that the "4/20" ploy is happening in a place like Johnson County. An affluent suburb of Kansas City, Johnson County (in 2014) had a median household income of $75,000 which is well above the national median of approximately $50,500. The unemployment rate is five percent, and the population is 86-percent white. 

Meanwhile, there is little real crime. 

Within Johnson County, there are 17 police departments in addition to the Sherriff's Department, but within the Department's specific area of jurisdiction in 2014, there were 232 cases of property crime such as stolen cars, burglaries, and non-robbery theft. More seriously, there were 11 rapes, and 39 cases of aggravated assault/battery. There were no robberies or murders. In fact, over the past five years, there have been exactly two murders in the Johnson County Sheriff's jurisdiction. 

With so few murders, then, the deputies can get to work making arrests and putting together solid evidence in all those other cases.  

But they apparently have better things to do. For those 232 property crimes, only 27 arrests (including juvenile arrests) were made according to the sheriff's own report. For the 31 vehicle thefts in 2014, zero arrests were made. Exactly one arrest was made in response to the 11 rapes reported in 2014. 

Meanwhile, a whopping 165 arrests were made for "drug offenses" and another 6 for "liquor violations." 

Now, it's possible that arrests were made of the offenders in neighboring jurisdictions, (and its likely there is more than one crime committed by each criminal) although a look at the arrest totals for, say, Overland Park, Kansas reveals 17 arrests for 339 vehicle thefts, 12 arrests for 30 robbery cases, and 6 arrests for 45 rapes. They're doing a bit better in Overland Park, although even the Overland Park police eclipse their efforts in real crime with their 377 drug arrests. 

Now, I'm not claiming that law enforcement agencies should be batting 1000. That's an unrealistic expectation. However, as long they're not, they should be prioritizing real crime instead of digging through suburban garbage cans — as Johnson County deputies do — looking for drug paraphernalia. . 

Proportionally, however, the Johnson County Sheriff's department, in comparison to many neighboring jurisdictions, appears to put a remarkable emphasis on drug arrests while ignoring real crime. 

And what does it cost the taxpayer for all this crack police work? 

Total expenditures for the Sherriff's department in fiscal year 2015 totaled $82,400,000 with $59,000,000 of that going to personnel. With a total of 656 full-time equivalent positions that's a total of $90,000 per full-time employee. Even if we count every single non-drug arrest as being for a real crime, we end up with more than two full-time, year-round employees for every single arrest. That means arrests for real crime cost nearly $200,000 each — just counting personnel costs. And, we don't even know if they're arresting the right people. If we include all costs, and not just personnel, the per-arrest cost is closer to $260,000. As seen above, however, we know that few of these arrests are for the more serious crimes. 

It's quite a lucrative scam they're running in Johnson County. They ignore real crimes while focusing on SWAT raids against white collar suburbanites who offer little risk to any officer who likes to throw small children to the floor. 

Should real crime increase, you can be sure, also, that the department won't have to cut back on its press conferences touting how they rough up dangerous criminals who may or may not be growing plants in their basements. The department simply need go the politicians, claim to be terribly underfunded and under siege in the face of the new crime wave, and get a nice big budget increase. It works almost every time. 

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.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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