Decentralize the Police

In the 1960s and 70s, the United States was in the midst of recovering from some of the worst racial unrest in our nation’s history. Cities throughout the country burned in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Frustration among African Americans over the legacy of racism and the continued legal, social, and economic obstacles they faced to achieve equality boiled over into confrontations with the police. A little-noticed development in city politics added fuel to the flames—the decision by large cities to begin annexing smaller adjacent villages and townships to create large, centralized, bureaucratic organizations for providing virtually all city services, like sanitation, school, and police.

These developments were the result of the dominant school of thought in public administration. The discipline’s emphasis on the centralization of power, rejection of the shared powers outlined in the Constitution, and the preeminence of professionally staffed bureaucracies had its roots in the work of Woodrow Wilson and later Max Weber. In his highly influential book Congressional Government Wilson argued that the checks and balances codified in the Constitution were “mischievous” to good governance. Wilson’s views fit neatly into the theory that a science of administration was the effective way to provide public services. Weber extended this rejection of the divided powers in the American system by rigorously demanding that politics be separated from the “science” of formal bureaucratic professionalism. This view, prominent in European scholarship of the period, shaped decisively the new system of administrative governance that emerged at all levels of American government in the 20th century.  

American cities moved swiftly to annex small communities and create larger ones with the hope that, by eliminating the less well-funded and smaller communities surrounding large cities, more efficient, professional public services could be provided from the resulting economies of scale. This was supposed to lead to better provision of public goods and make for happier citizens owing to an increased quality of community life. But cracks in the science of administration quickly appeared.

Two scholars stood out for their opposition to this tendency—Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. The Ostroms believed that politics and policy were intertwined, not separated. They were steeped in the tradition of the American Founding, Tocqueville, and modern political economists such as James Buchanan. Vincent Ostrom wrote a scathing critique of the centralized approach in his classic book The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration in which he pulled apart the Wilsonian tradition and its followers. While the book was a detailed attack on the centralized approach, two particular shortcomings identified by Ostrom remain especially relevant.

The first was Wilson’s wholesale rejection of the institutional checks and balances built into the American system. Ostrom was a careful and respectful reader of the Constitutional framers and he took to heart the idea that checks and balances, along with federalism, were important, not only in politics but also in public policy and administration. Scientific professionalism detached from political accountability was antithetical to representative government.

The second was a notion of the proper scale needed to provide different types of public goods. The successful provision of public goods is a matter of promoting efficiency and limiting spillover effects. Certain types of public services require a larger scale, but many others do not. Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren used the term “gargantua” to describe large, centralized bureaucratic systems. They noted that a gargantua system “unquestionably provides an appropriate scale of organization for many huge public services” such as harbors, airports, mass transit systems, and others addressing “metropolitan-wide problems”. However, they argued that such a large scale was not appropriate for other services, including police.

Ostrom found that the less well-funded, less “expert” local police force was much more respected by the community than the centralized, professional Chicago police force that served annexed communities.

The problem with a gargantuan system is that its decision-making processes and sheer size make it susceptible to non-responsiveness to citizens’ demands. “Bureaucratic unresponsiveness in gargantua may produce frustration and cynicism on the part of the local citizen who finds no point of access for remedying local problems of a public character.” Anyone who has seen the protests of police abuses in the streets of American cities lately can understand how prescient Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren were. As a solution, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom regularly advocated for what they called “polycentric” systems of service provision. They borrowed that phrase from Michael Polanyi, and they defined it as a system that “can be organized so as to induce elements of market organization among public enterprises.” Such a system can only exist if it possesses “a rich structure of overlapping jurisdictions and fragmentation of authority” such as the one we have in the US federal system. Polycentricity is neither privatizing a service, like the police, nor is it “defunding” the police whatever that specifically may entail. It’s about decentralizing the service, providing overlapping jurisdictions, and fragmenting authority to make it more responsive to the demands of those it serves.

Elinor Ostrom specifically tested the idea that smaller, more locally organized police forces might be “better” than those produced by a gargantua system. Her work might be best described as asking the simple question of any dominant theory: “Is that right?” Whether it’s the widely accepted “tragedy of the commons” or the preference for gargantua as a public policy system, Elinor Ostrom used fieldwork and empirical research to determine if popular theories were really correct.

In research with Gordon Whitaker, Ostrom decided to compare how citizens in two different contexts, but the same urban area, viewed their police protection. In one small community on the edge of Cook County, Illinois, Ostrom surveyed citizens’ views on the efficacy and responsiveness of their police force. She then compared it to the views of citizens in communities whose police forces had been subsumed by Chicago through annexation. It provided an outstanding natural experiment. Both communities were poor, predominantly African American, and geographically similar.

The study is still highly salient for us today because the perception that the police treated poorer African American communities worse than comparable white neighborhoods was widespread in the 60s and 70s, and there were many assertions of abusive practices, lack of understanding and trust, and extreme biases both by the officers (against the citizens) and the citizens (against the officers). These were so prevalent that even good experiences on either side were not changing preconceived notions.

Ostrom found that the less well-funded, less professional and “expert” police force was much more popular and respected by the non-annexed community than the centralized, professional Chicago police force that served the newly annexed communities.

What might such a system look like today?  How would it ameliorate the frustration that African Americans feel towards law enforcement? Ostrom argued that locally controlled police would have the advantage of being built to the specifications of local communities. Rather than seeking funding for SWAT teams, tanks, and riot gear, the police could devote resources to services and areas that the citizens themselves requested. Additionally, a truly local community police force would be accountable to the community and much more likely to have local knowledge and experience in that area, reducing the likelihood of random acts of violence against citizens by officers who have no personal connections to the community. In fact, many police officers do not live in the cities in which they work nor do they have familiarity with the neighborhoods and communities in which they investigate or try to prevent crime. As Elinor Ostrom noted in her article, wealthy white communities often have such relationships with the police, while poorer African American communities typically do not. Moving towards local control would change that.

Whatever the result of this latest convulsion of protest over police activity toward minorities, it’s useful to keep in mind that anger must lead to substantive change. Change couched in abstract principles without clear connections to improvement will simply restart the cycle of failure. A one-size-fits-all, large, centralized, bureaucratic service provider for all city services simply cannot satisfy the demands of citizens in many areas. Rather than defund the police, current advocates for change would be well served by asking tough questions of the institutions that are producing these outcomes. Public sector unions, immunity, and culture problems are important to address, but so is a failed administrative system based on an outdated and flawed model of governance.