The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight


At an early morning hour, two teenagers steal identical sportscars from the curb-stone before a home in Silver Spring, Md. Within minutes the theft is reported, and a cruiser spots the two Porsches speeding towards the open countryside. The cruiser pursues. One of the cars swerves down a sidestreet. The cruiser radios for help and continues after the other car. Although the sportscar is faster than the police car, the boy is inexperienced and, in attempting to avoid a car pulling out from a driveway, he runs off the road and into a a tree. The crash is fatal.

Minutes later, the boy's friend turns himself in. He is released to the custody of his parents to await trial. He waits nine months. Found guilty of auto theft, he is given a stiff sentence which is suspended. Then he receives a lengthy probation, during which he reports weekly to a court officer.

Throughout the nation, incidents like this occur regularly. For the purpose of slapping the wrist of a teenager, the police will chase him for miles at high speed. What sense does this make? Why do cop and judge seem to be operating at cross purposes? This month, complementing a previous article on police brutality, we consider the matter of police efficiency.

Why, for example, in a time of rapidly spiraling violent crimes, are the majority of arrests for simple drunkenness? Why do police often treat crime victims with indifference or hostility?

To decide if the police are efficient, one must question the ethical suppositions which act as the rationale and source of wisdom for the present system. Because efficiency can be defined only with reference to desired goals, underlying premises need to be carefully examined. Indeed, the greatest portion of today's police problems can be traced to either the fact that few people really know what they want the police to do or to the fact that people have exceedingly hazy or dogmatic reasons for asking police to do the tasks selected as "proper."

The following selection attempts to offer some definition of efficiency so that in the next section discussing statistics there exists a reasonable basis for judgment. Those who seek background material are referred to earlier articles on police brutality (Volume 2, Number 3) and student riots (Volume 2, Numbers 5/6).

Ethical Preliminaries

In a free society, the policeman's function is to provide for the defense of his customers. Recognizing the advantages of the division of labor, most people turn over most aspects of their defense to specialized professional agencies.

While not a moral imperative, such delegation is generally an economic necessity. In any case, police should be viewed as no more than agents. of their customers, not as deities or moral supermen entitled to status superior to that of common citizens. Just as Eastern is the "wings of man," so police are the trigger finger of the world. Reduced to essentials, the constables of a free society—or of any society—are gunmen. Of critical importance are the purposes to which their guns are put: aggression or defense? Defense, the protection of human rights, is man's only rational justification for taking up arms.

It is from man's right to self defense, and his right to implement this right by any external means he pleases, including the employment of another human being, that the police derive their right to provide their services.

If, however, a policeman's gun is ever used for aggression, if he ever abrogates the right of an innocent citizen, no matter what the supposed justification, then to that extent, that policeman is no longer a defender of law, but a criminal—a criminal in uniform.

The protection that a free society's police might provide is divided into two general categories: guard services and restitution, or before and after. If a particular police force were moral and competent, its activities, whether guarding or recompensatory, would not include the initiation of force and would therefore be non-coercive. (Coercion is the initiation of physical force, the abrogation of a man's rightful range of choice. By this definition, protective acts, whether preventive or reactive, are non-coercive and unobjectionable. The issue readers might debate is that of the determination of the precise boundaries of retaliatory force. When does such force overstep its moral perimeter and spill into impermissible initiatory force?)

The need for various police services is not homogeneous. A man living on the island housing the Statue of Liberty has little need for watchmen and he needn't worry about the children leaving their bicycles on the lawn or about locking his door. Located in the middle of one of the largest crime areas in the world, the island is without crime. So while the caretaker may desire contract insurance to assure prompt delivery of supplies, he has little need for a patrol car. A bomb squad, maybe…

Picture another man in this proposed society. He runs a business of a nature requiring that he experience no inventory loss if it is not to suffer economic collapse. He is unable to obtain insurance at a reasonable rate and he cannot depend on the unsure process of obtaining restitution from the prospective thief, for it is unlikely that any thief could pay the tremendous damages caused by his relatively small but precipitous theft. The businessman's most practical course of action would be to hire trustworthy watchmen. For this man, restitutive protection would be akin to locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.

This need for specialized, individualized service indicates the criteria for defining police efficiency: that the system in question have facilities for satisfying the particular desires of individual customers, that it include feedback loops to assure adequate communication of those desires, and that it be responsive to those desires.

Aside from consumer satisfaction, there are no ready-made standards by which to judge police effectiveness. Statistics on arrests, prosecutions, recovery of stolen goods, and other police activities are meaningless unless viewed in the context of consumer desire. A steel manufacturer's grandiose production figures would be laughable if one knew his girders sat rusting, unpurchased. The Nazi polizei were unsurpassed in their "efficiency" at the task of removing "criminal elements" from Aryan society, but no one would claim they were efficient at satisfying rational human needs. There exists no list of preordained tasks which police must undertake. In a free society police services to be provided would be determined by standard market processes. An entrepreneur, perceiving an unfulfilled market need, would offer service designed to meet that need and would, on the basis of the accuracy of his estimate, either make a profit or suffer a loss.

We haven't any way of determining before the fact exactly what free market police systems would be like, whether they would be exclusively concerned with watchman duties or with recovering losses whether large or small, concerned with single tasks or engaged in a series of interlocking activities designed to process criminals from detection to capture to prosecution to restitution.

If one of the basic requirements for defining police effectiveness is the unhampered feedback loop of consumer preference, then America's government police, funded by involuntary contributions—taxes—and run in the impersonal spirit of a "public service," are bound to be ineffective. Through the voting apparatus citizens exert some control. But aside from the diluted quality of voting control, important differences exist between a bureaucracy and the marketplace. In the current system, the "controller" (voter), financer (taxpayer), and user (victim) are not the same person—a formula for disaster. In the free market, these three functions are performed in continuity, by the same person. The political process, by interjecting force, disintegrates the natural flow process. The feedback loops and their benefits are dissolved along with actual (as opposed to apparent) control over police.

Under the present system, only one thing will ultimately prevent police from engaging in a medley of repression (besides stupidity, laziness, disinterest, tradition, or shyness): particularly painful form of public censure—revolution. But the standard long-range, integrated method of discouraging meanness and inefficiency, that of witholding payment, has been circumvented by your friendly politicians.

No matter what the police do, the money still rolls in. Individual cops can be fired (perhaps), but the agencies that hired them continue undaunted. No other industry, with the possible exceptions of the post office and the military complex, has so poor a reputation and so steady an income. This says much about control. While the so-called controlling public gets to vote every year or two, the police are free to do what they please with the taxpayers' money, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The point isn't that the police are about to initiate 1984, but that, repressive or not, the police are not under the kind of control that is proper in human relationships. Even if all police action were non-coercive, as long as the funding is through force, the system will be wrong by definition. Any action undertaken with stolen money is wrong.

All this is pretty much in line with what free-market economists have long said about force-funded government activities, notably the post office. There is no reason to suppose police services are inherently unresponsive to market processes. That the fundamental service they provide is the use of force doesn't alter this; indeed, it makes it all the more imperative that proper economic analysis be applied.

Forced funding alters the police-customer relationship from that of a value-for-value, person-to-person, voluntary character to one of a something-for-nothing, beast-to-slave, involuntary character. Once the premise that coercion is necessary for survival is accepted by a culture to a degree sufficient for a group of men successfully to impose a tax on other men for the purpose of funding an organization supposedly dedicated to protecting those other men from theft, there is no telling how repressive that organization might become. It's only a matter of time and chance.

One of the most significant aspects that heralds the transformation of force-funded police from an institution of protection into one of authority is an alteration of legal strictures: less and less are they concerned with violations of citizens' rights, more and more with imagined transgressions against police (so-called crimes against the State).

Examples of laws that most obviously fit this category are sedition laws, laws against the advocacy of anarchy or communism, restrictions on private weaponry, and against resisting arrest, obstructing an officer, or assaulting an officer.

Note that these last three, to the degree that they might have been authored in an attempt to protect policemen in situations where the officer was truly the victim (and not the perpetrator) of aggression, are completely superfluous. The original laws against assault would have been sufficient—if the intent were protection. But the purpose of such laws is clearly not protection—it is authority. To make resisting arrest a crime regardless of context is to make self defense illegal and elevate the policeman to the status of deity. (There are at least three contexts in which it could be morally justifiable for a suspect to resist arrest: if he is innocent; if he is guilty, but certain that the policeman does not have evidence or authority sufficient to undertake an arrest; or if he is guilty and certain that the treatment to be afforded him upon apprehension will not be consonant with the crime). We find the legislative, judicial, and administrative branches of the government with a socialized police force acting increasingly in pursuance of laws that make real (and imaginary) crimes the subject not of restitution on behalf of victims but of fines paid to or prison sentences served for the State.

Political processes seem to encourage bad ideas. One of the most notable of these has been the manner by which men have tried to achieve the ideal of justice, as well as the means by which they came to their conceptions of the ideal. Since goal-choices are logically prior to the determination of an organization's success at achieving those goals, it is worthwhile to look at the conception of legal justice as embodied in the current system. The discussion will further illustrate that inevitable result of attempts to circumvent natural market processes—failure. Although the motif of American criminal law is multi-colored and confused, one basic theme does seem to predominate: the Biblical "eye for an eye." Only recently have people begun to examine this theme for possible non-libertarian, non-individualistic consequences. And so, until recently, material in this field has been as weak as it was sparse.

The question which must be asked of the present system is: "In whose benefit does it operate, and in whose benefit should it operate?" The sensible answer to the second question is: the victim and potential victim. Unfortunately, as a result of the "eye for an eye" philosophy, the answer to the first question, at present is anything other than the victim. We shall see why and how.

Taken literally, "an eye for an eye" can be seen to be of questionable value to the victim. A man might seek to have the man who gouged out his eye forced to collect sufficient money to pay for the costs of medical treatment. For him to strike back in rage would be insane.

Objectively, a victim's rational self-interest lies not in what he can do to his assailant but in what stolen value he can force his assailant to return.

The victim's concern, then, should be in those actions which best restore or improve upon the situation which existed before the crime. Such an individualized approach is alien to a politicized system. Individualized restitution gains the politician no power and, by placing the emphasis on the victim, demands too accurate a concept of justice to allow the political method to function for very long.

Thus, "an eye for an eye" serves the same stagnating function for the penal bureaucrat as does the concept of "good" and "bad" pharmaceuticals for the politicos of the FDA (see Reason, Vol. 2, Number 9)—that of assuring maximally feasible power.

Crime Statistics Analyzed

The preceding section was intended to stand as a preliminary presentation, as is this section. Comprehensiveness would demand more time and space than is possible under present circumstances. My intention is simply to present enough material for those who desire a brief explanation of the problem and to point the way for those who would attempt the more detailed projects which the subject assuredly deserves. The statistics used here were culled from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), the Boston Police Department Report of 1968, and the President's Commission on Law and Enforcement (the Commission).

Some liberty was taken in an attempt to decipher the statistics and terminology of these reports. This is intended to assist those whose definitions of "crime" are a good deal more precise than those of the people who compile police data. Two sets of standards are used to judge police performance: those based on the premises sketched in the first section and the standards set up by the police themselves.

The Commission reports that the annual cost of crime in the U.S. is $4,747,000,000. (The total figure quoted by the Commission is larger, but it included such non-crimes as gambling.) Government expenditure directly related to police work is pegged at $4,212,000,000 per year (mostly local), while citizens spend another $1,910,000,000 for privately financed protection.

Perhaps this seems like an efficacious expenditure of money. But if the Commission's figures are inaccurate by way of including non-crime, they are also untrue to reality by omission of a very large quantity of real crime. As I mentioned before, government officials are not notably discerning and thus, while the government does report the total of America's crime, it does so under the strangest heading: we call it the federal budget.

If "private" crime amounts to about 5 billion dollars per year, federal and local tax revenue totals over 300 billion. This is crime—taxation is theft.

But still there is more: unreported private crime. The President's Commission cites detailed surveys taken in the cities of Washington, Chicago, and Boston by the Bureau of Social Science Research (Washington D.C.) and Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan which reveal the following: forcible rape occurs three and a half times more often than is reported in the UCR; burglaries, three times; robbery, twice as often. Even these figures may be low, the commission claims, because of poor survey techniques, the worst problem being a lack of reports from victims themselves!

What was the victim's most common reason for not notifying the police? He did not think police could do anything for him (NORC survey, cited by the Commission). Apparently, these people know something the extollers of police perfection do not.

Under political auspices, the public's sense of right and wrong fades, to be replaced with fuzzy, hollow catchwords like "the general welfare." People sense the immense arbitrariness of the system, which steals billions yearly in tax money yet punishes five dollar shoplifting sprees with months in prison; which ignores or condones brutal police action yet chastises people for such harmless and peaceful acts as gambling or selling drugs; which finds no difficulty in banning such terrible things as rock concerts and "dirty" movies but just can't find it in its heart to halt criminally dangerous industrial pollution; which is willing to spend a large fortune on such useless and immoral programs as Operation Intercept yet seems impotent to deter the rapid rise of violent city crime (committed while patrolmen sleep in their cars on quieter streets.

What is the average citizen to think? If the state is always right—as many people seem to believe—and it is all right for the state to steal, why shouldn't the rest of us join in? This is not to say that the state causes men to aggress but that in a world dominated by the ethics of theft, the state acts as the perfect bad example.

Should the disrespect for legality engendered by the government's monopoly status not actually drive men to crime, it will doubtless leave them callous to the plight of victims. By its nature, police investigative work requires active participation by citizens. But, as you know, willingness to help police is rapidly disappearing, especially in high crime areas.

In another vein, Daniel Gutman, dean of New York Academy of the Judiciary, estimates that 75 percent of street crime is committed by drug addicts. Accurate or not, his estimate testifies to the power of the state to work in opposition to its intended purpose. In an attempt to reduce actions it mistakenly considers "crime," it has created a class of "criminals" who become much more inclined to steal for their high. Most pleasure drugs are inexpensive to fabricate. The laws against their sale, far from removing them from the market, simply become part of their cost, a tax of sorts: a misery tax. The same laws—and the attitude that fostered it—make withdrawal treatment expensive or impossible. So? Burglaries—lots of them.

Another example is auto theft. The vast majority of such losses are crimes committed by under-18 thieves. Not coincidently, 16 to 18 is the age bracket within which many states first allow individuals to drive on the public roads. It is often the case that the parents of a 15 (or 16 or 17, depending on the particular state) year old trust their son with their automobile and would gladly let him use it, but the benevolent state says that he must obtain permission (a license) to use the roads they have paid for, and mommy and daddy wouldn't think of going against the wishes of their duly elected representatives.

So one night the kids in the neighborhood roll one of the neighbor's cars out of the driveway and take it for an hour joyride. Some 85 percent of auto theft is thereby accounted for. If the roads were private or if many localities did not zone out private tracks where kids might rent cars, what might happen to this statistic?

According to the Commission, 25 percent of maternity deaths in 1965 were due to illegal abortions. Who killed those women—the bumbling abortionists or the dirty old men in power who forced the women to resort to such desperate means? Or both?

Some of the most spectacular figures that might be pointed to in reference to police efficiency are those related to the solution of violent crime. By the standards the police have chosen to judge themselves, the large majority of violent acts of aggression are "cleared," that is, a suspect is arrested. Setting aside any objections one might have to any particular efficiency indicator ("clearance") that is not related to actual aptitude (which might better be indicated by conviction), this sounds like a decent performance. Or so I thought, until I read what the Commission says about victim-offender relationships in the kind of crime at which police investigators excel.

The Commission cites a study in Philadelphia done between 1948 and 1952 which discovered that only 12.2 percent of murders were committed by strangers. In 28.2 percent of the cases studied, the killer was a relative or close friend; in 24.7 percent, a member of the family; and in 13.5 percent, an acquaintance.

The FBI came up with similar figures.

What this means is that in all but about 12 percent of reported murders, if the police wish to find the killer, all they need is a list of names of the victim's family, friends, and neighbors. Not only do most killers turn themselves in, but they commit their crime openly, without premeditation or attempts to conceal evidence.

The best available statistics on rape and aggravated assault indicate that other crimes of violence follow a similar pattern. The District of Columbia Commission on Crime found (in an unspecified year) that two thirds of 151 rape victims surveyed were attacked by persons with whom they were at least casually acquainted. Only 36 percent of the 224 assailants surveyed were complete strangers to their victims. 7 percent of the attackers were known to the victim by sight; 41 percent were relatives, family friends, or boy friends; 26 percent, acquaintances or neighbors.

Rape, of course, is one of the easiest crimes of all to solve. The victim invariably receives a strong impression of her assailant's features. In rape, then, as with other crimes of violence, the police have it easy.

The UCR cites these 1968 "clearances": murder, 86 percent; negligent manslaughter, 80 percent; rape, 55 percent; aggravated assault, 66 percent.

What happens when real intellectual investigative work is demanded of police? The UCR figures on crimes "against property" provide an answer. Unlike violent "passion" crime, "property" crimes are planned and often committed without witness. Naturally, the "clearance" rates are considerably lower than with violent crime: robbery, 27 percent; burglary, 19 percent; larceny, 18 percent; auto theft, 19 percent.

The correlation between complexity of investigation and police performance would appear to be approximately linear.

Basically, the police do poorly (by their own standards) in solving "property" crimes because in such crimes the criminal often includes making a serious attempt to foil them. Unlike violent crimes, which tend to be emotional crimes committed without forethought, "property" crimes are either crimes of "profit" or "opportunity," (shoplifting, for example) uninvestigatable because either well-planned or planned not at all (but committed without witness). Auto thefts, for one, fall into this last category.

The joyride thefts are nearly untraceable through standard techniques. Most cars are stolen by youngsters often on their first criminal escapade, and are abandoned without attempt at stripping or resale. Thus, fingerprinting, studies of M.O., and ring-breaking techniques are useless. (There are ways to find such kids but this article is not dealing with recommendations.) On the other hand, it would be quite interesting to find out what percentage of cars stolen by professional rings are recovered (before they are shipped out-country, or repainted and sold, or stripped). If attainable, such data would show the balance between the profitability of organized car theft and the profitability of organized prevention and/or punishment of car theft. Such data would show that in car theft and many similar offenses the scales are tipped far in favor of the criminal.

This is to be expected. While America's police are a socialized enterprise, thieves face few, if any, entry barriers. Here, as everywhere else, free market economics apply. As long as it is more profitable for thugs to practice their trade than for police to find ways to deter or catch them, the clearance rate (or whatever efficiency measure you care to employ) will remain at its present level—or, actually, continue to drop as it has been doing in recent years. It's just good old supply and demand.

The true profitability that people find in "property" crimes is indicated by the recidivism rate (77 percent for burglars from 1960 to 1968, as reported by UCR) and the phenomenal rise in this kind of aggression (83 percent rise in burglary from 1960 to 1968).

I recall reading a hypothetical case of a man who stole $24 thousand from a bank, hid the money, was caught and convicted, served two years and was released He later dug up the money and carefully spent it. Salary: somewhat less than $12 thousand per year, plus free room and board for two years. This particular example probably rarely occurs. More often, the crook won't be detected, or caught, or convicted. Yet it can be seen that in whichever permutation of the system's alternatives one views, the crook manages to get away cheaply, often without paying back the debt he has incurred.

Just how many succeed in burying the loot may be indicated by the stolen goods recovery rate for the police of Boston for the year 1968. Before quoting those figures, however, the reader should be warned that, on the basis of these figures alone, only tentative conclusions can be drawn. Exactly what is represented by the various categories is known only to the obscure municipal pencil pusher who made the charts. Stolen property in Boston in 1968 was valued at almost $14 million, while recovered goods totaled about half that. Before we can work with this material, we have to know (or make assumptions about) whether the goods recovered were the same as those stolen or if the figures represent any material recovered in the 12 month period, in which case comparison of stolen and recovered goods figures is of questionable value. (Such are the troubles awaiting one who wishes to determine the efficiency of an organization by using data collected by that same organization).

A recovery rate of 50 percent may seem half-way decent. But consider exactly what sort of goods Boston police were able to return.

Out of $8 million of stolen automobiles, automobiles, the boys in blue rounded up nearly $7 million worth. However, when it came to jewelry, money, and other goods stolen for profit, their record pales. Of $1.3 million of currency, less than $100 thousand was returned—about 1/17th. The report quoted similar figures for all other categories.

This is as we might expect. In auto joyride thefts, no attempt is made to sell or hide the abandoned vehicle. Finding these cars is child's play. But when it comes to items easily hidden and readily saleable, the cops fall flat on their own statistics.

Presently, I have no data of the extent convicted criminals are required by courts to make good their theft. From what I know, it is little. For the most part, money stolen is money lost (or gained, from the thug's point of view).

If the non-existent threat of retribution does not deter theft, how about the prison system? Does it scare the dishonest away from a life of crime? Does it rehabilitate those who weren't scared? Of course not. It is common knowledge that prisons are breeding grounds for criminals. And the recidivism rate demonstrates that jail is little threat to those planning to commit a crime for profit.

If imprisonment within the current system does not appear to work, it is no wonder. We should have never expected that free room and board would teach men that there is no such thing as "something for nothing". Penal theory has developed with the same disregard for reality as all other aspects of police work—and for the same reason.

Even a preliminary discussion of the particulars of police efficiency could fill many more pages, but as this article does not pretend to be much more than an invitation to further research, I shall end it here. Much more could be said: about the lack of integration between various functions of the system, about inefficiencies in the courts, about inadequate investigational techniques.

The future holds at least some promise that the Establishment will begin to look at police efficiency as the integrated whole I have outlined.

Already pointing in this direction is a recent book written by Norval Morris and Gordon Hawkins at the University of Chicago Law School, The Honest Politician's Guide to Crime Control, which advises that the quality of police work could be improved many times over by the simple expedient of unburdening the government of "crimes without victims" enforcement of which currently drains a large percentage of manpower, money, and equipment. The Ford Foundation recently announced a $30 million study of the police. And several think-tanks have begun to study the entire "criminal justice system"—as a system. All this is encouraging. But should those dispensing the money and doing the studies neglect to call on the sound advice of free market economists, whose analysis and predictions have proven correct for so many other enterprises, it would be the ultimate cop-out.

This article is a condensed and revised version of a paper presented by the author at several conferences sponsored by the Society for Individual Liberty.