Lifting the Veil

“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.” Commander William Adama, Battlestar Galactica (Season 1, Episode 2)

Although the source of this quote is fictional, its perspicacious message is grounded in reality. The only twist is that it is the police who are becoming more military-like. The end result, however, is the same – civilian casualties.

I shouldn’t have to provide examples, but I will as a courtesy for those reading this a few years hence when I suspect recent events will have been lost down the rabbit hole of collective amnesia: the shooting death of Michael Brown in Missouri, the shooting death of John Crawford in an Ohio Wal-Mart, a toddler in Georgia critically injured by a flash grenade, David Hooks shot dead in his home by police in Georgia and so on. If you’d like to read more there is a website dedicated to memorializing these horrific stories. The take home message here is that if cops are going to put their safety above all other considerations, then perhaps they should find a different line of work. “Officer safety” is the oft-cited excuse for the use of deadly force, however the myth that police work is the most dangerous profession just doesn’t line up with reality. In fact in 2013 it didn’t even make the top 10 of most dangerous professions (garbage collector and roofer actually rank higher).

Now I’d like to engage you in a thought experiment. Suppose that instead of the headlines being “local police shoot man dead” they instead read “employee of private security firm at local mall shoots man dead.” What kind of response would we expect in that situation? Would we expect that the employee be given a few days off from work, found to have done nothing wrong and be back on the job within a month or two? If an employee of ANY company did such a thing there would be lawsuits galore. The security company, the employee and the mall would all be sued. The message of a lawsuit is this: someone is accountable.

But what happens when a public police force is involved? The police department can’t be sued. The individual cop can’t be sued. This is qualified and sovereign immunity at work. The municipality involved is sometimes sued in rare situations. Even if they lose the suit there is zero incentive to change. Those “in charge” are not personally held financially accountable. Instead the cost of the suit or settlement is diffused among the taxpayers in pieces so small it is hardly noticed. The normal feedback mechanism that a lawsuit provides (personal financial loss) is thus short-circuited and nothing changes.

Now imagine a world where policing is entirely in the domain of private companies. This is not at all far fetched. Many municipalities (like Sandy Springs, Georgia) now outsource a range of traditional municipal services. In this hypothetical scenario private police companies would carry liability insurance just like all companies do today. Private police companies likewise would require their employee (the cops) to carry their own liability insurance. The cost of this insurance would be directly related to the cop’s training and work history (just as auto insurance rates are related to a driver’s history). Insurers would have an incentive to regulate such police forces in order to minimize the likelihood of paying claims. Reckless cops and poorly managed policing companies would either lose coverage or find their insurance rates so high they couldn’t afford to operate anymore. No municipality would contract a company lacking insurance. The self-correcting feedback mechanism of blatant self-interested profit seeking keeps everyone in line. Insurers regulate out the bad firms so they don’t lose money paying out claims. Police firms regulate out the bad cops so they don’t suffer increased insurance rates. The public sues those firms or cops that manage to slip through. There’s nothing magical here, it works like this everyday throughout the market (when not otherwise distorted through government interventions).

This would be trivial to implement nationwide. Municipalities already utilize a bid process for many other projects; there is no reason why it could not be done for policing as well. True accountability can only happen once the veil of qualified and sovereign immunity is lifted and the self-correction of self-interest found in the market is permitted to function.