Centralized Policing Is the Wrong Solution

Elinor Ostrom and the case against centralization


Let's take it for granted that you live in a world where cops can stop you (or worse) for a wide range of petty behaviors, where the culture of law enforcement has been infected with the idea that the police are domestic soldiers, and where federal programs are providing even the most local agencies with arsenals. Which would you rather live under, a small-town police force or a big-city police force?

The conventional wisdom right now is that you're better off with the bigger department. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the government's heavy-handed response to the protests that followed, a wave of stories have suggested that the root problem with policing in the St. Louis region is the area's patchwork pattern of local governments. There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, plus the City of St. Louis next door; there is a jumble of school districts, fire districts, and other local authorities whose jurisdictions do not precisely match the municipal boundaries; there are hundreds of street associations that serve as purely private "governments" owned and run by their residents. BusinessWeek called this fragmented landscape "a key factor in the tense race relations that contributed to the riots and, perhaps, the shooting itself." The New York Times published an op-ed that claimed consolidating local governments would "empower the black citizens of Ferguson," carefully eliding the fact that such a change would transform Ferguson's blacks from an electoral majority to a minority. "For Anything to Change, Missouri Should Consolidate St. Louis," The Atlantic echoed. The most extreme version of the idea appeared in The Washington Post in late November, when a Los Angeles cop published a piece arguing that the country's local police forces should be replaced by statewide agencies.

Technocrats are constantly calling for consolidated regional governments, so it's no surprise to see them taking an opportunity to do it again. But some libertarians have echoed parts of their critique, not least because these local authorities really do behave atrociously sometimes. In September, my former Reason colleague Radley Balko filed a devastating dispatch from St. Louis County in The Washington Post, showing in close detail how the region's towns squeeze the poor with petty fines and fees. ("I was actually let go as a municipal judge from a town because I wasn't generating enough revenue," one former jurist recalled.) Balko cited the region's splintered system as a core part of the problem: "there are just too many towns, too many municipal governments, too many municipal employees, and not enough revenue to support them." That financial shortfall, he wrote, creates an incentive to squeeze people still more.

That incentive is certainly there, and some towns are shameless about pursuing it. Last week, after months of negative coverage of precisely this practice, we learned that Ferguson plans to deal with a budget gap by issuing more tickets. But it isn't self-evident that centralization is the solution. Indeed, it could make things worse.

Consider a series of studies conducted by the economist and political scientist Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues in the 1970s. These came at a time when academic and political opinion on local power was being tugged in two different directions. On one hand, there was a drive toward merging municipal governments and tightening their professional standards, moving away from the sorts of part-time work and volunteerism that many small communities rely on. On the other hand, a vocal group of dissidents—some on the right, while others came out of the New Left and black power movements—pushed hard for decentralization and community control.

Ostrom, who would later win a Nobel Prize in economics, decided to put the arguments to an empirical test. The results helped convince her that highly centralized government was inferior to what she called "polycentric" systems, in which political units of varying size can cooperate but act independently, without a clear hierarchy. She felt this idea applied to the police as much as anyone else: While economies of scale might make it sensible for, say, a single crime lab to serve a large region, she felt it would be better for that lab to contract with many relatively small departments than to be an arm of one big one.

In the first study, published in 1973, Ostrom and the political scientist Gordon Whitaker took advantage of a natural experiment in Indiana. When Indianapolis and Marion County consolidated into a single government, dubbed Unigov, some towns in the county maintained a separate identity with their own services. Ostrom and Whitaker compared three of those towns with three Indianapolis neighborhoods of a similar size and demographics, going beyond the standard measures of police performance to survey residents on a range of questions about their experiences with law enforcement. They found that the smaller, locally controlled forces outperformed their big-city counterpart on most measures and did about the same on the others.

A host of similar studies around the country followed, some conducted by Ostrom and some not. All of them reached similar conclusions. Two of those follow-ups are particularly relevant to the issues raised this year in Ferguson.

In one paper, Ostrom and Whitaker looked specifically at policing in predominantly black communities. The literature that already existed showed a great deal of black dissatisfaction with the police, part of it related to brutality and racial harassment and part to insufficient control of real crimes. With that in mind, the scholars went to Cook County, Illinois, where they compared three neighborhoods in the City of Chicago to a pair of nearby black villages with very small, largely part-time police departments. The residents here turned out to be less satisfied with their small-town forces than the residents in Indiana had been. But the Chicago police scored even more poorly (and were also more costly). So the same basic pattern replicated itself: Citizens still preferred the locally controlled cops to the larger department, albeit with less enthusiasm.

In the other follow-up, Ostrom examined St. Louis itself. This time the results were a little different: There were some reasons to prefer a middle-sized police force (with 11 to 76 officers on the payroll) to a tiny one (employing 10 cops or less). But it was the big departments, again, that were most likely to have severe problems.

Obviously, a lot of time has passed since these studies were conducted; much has surely changed since the '70s. (It's worth noting that one of the black townships that Ostrom and Whitaker studied in Cook County—the village then known as East Chicago Heights and now as Ford Heights—recently replaced its police force with county-provided patrols.) But all three papers provide strong evidence against the idea that solving our police woes requires some sort of great urban merger. When people argue for centralized systems, they are comparing the warts-and-all world of a cash-strapped suburb to a professionalized ideal that large city governments rarely meet in practice.

At any rate, you hardly need a big city-county consolidation to get rid of a small unit that isn't performing well. There was a time when St. Louis County had even more municipalities, reaching a peak of 98 of them in the '50s. Since then, several towns have dissolved themselves without forcing the entire region to combine.

Albert O. Hirschman famously identified two major ways people can influence an institution, voice and exit. Consolidation weakens both tools: The larger electorate makes it harder for a single voter's voice to be heard, and the larger territory makes it harder to escape bad governance by exiting to a different burgh down the road. The problem in Missouri—well, one of the problems—is that small towns have found their own way to evade both voice and exit, through a method we might call piracy. With speed traps, high court fees, and similar mechanisms, they put a lot of the weight of funding themselves on the backs of people merely passing through town.

Fortunately, there are ways to reel in such practices. Last year the state of Missouri passed a law reducing the percentage of a city's budget that can be drawn from traffic revenue, dropping it from 35 percent to 30 percent. There is now a push to bring it down further, to 20 percent. Other potential state-level reforms include limiting the use of speed cameras, repealing nonviolent offenses that have become opportunities to levy fines, and requiring municipal courts to adopt protections already found in the state's circuit courts. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, has editorialized that the state Supreme Court should:

• Order courts to cease issuing warrants on the charge of failure to appear unless defendants will receive the same protections they would receive in circuit court, including the appointment of public defenders.

• Order all municipal courts to operate openly.

• Order that in all cases, defendants are brought before a judge within 72 hours, or 24 hours in cases where an arrest is made without a warrant.

If, having lost these sources of money, some local governments then feel the need to merge with a neighbor, so be it. If they cope instead by reducing expenses or by drawing on more honorably acquired funds, that will do too. The point is to change the incentives they face.

That won't end the problems that have fueled abuses across the country, in police departments both large and small. But it would be a start.

NEXT: Police Union Boss Defends Killing of Tamir Rice: 'When We Tell You to Do Something, Do It'

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  1. From what I’ve seen, the larger the department, the more professional its officers are expected to be. (Mind you, this is all relative.)

    1. ‘Professional’, sure – haircuts, clean, pressed uniforms, clean-shaven, all those things.

      Know the law, don’t abuse authority, courteous to the public – not so much.

      1. Witness the Chicago PD.

  2. Great article Jesse. The idea that 25 little corrupt towns is worse that 1 big corrupt one is just silly.

    Consolidation is a STUPID idea. Illinois, the most corrupt, worst credit-rated state in the union, is that way BECAUSE of consolidation. In the early 80’s the state made a big push to shrink the Senate and House citing all the monetary savings. NEVER did the state say anything about shitting all over the idea of representative government. And of course, today the problem is too much power is consolidated into Mike Madigan’s machine.

    Having grown up in south Cook County, I’ll add that black bedroom communities like Markham have a decent police force, whereas neighboring towns like Harvey and Ford Heights turned into corrupt shitholes because large employers closed up and were not replaced; yet the police departments and city payrolls remained the same size – the tax burden on the remaining employers and residents to maintain unnecessary staffing levels became too large which only hastened their demise. And now the same is happening is neighboring Matteson. Basically the exact same problem as Detroit. I call southern Cook County “The Detroit no one notices.”

    1. How’s Cicero these days?

  3. Last year the state of Missouri passed a law reducing the percentage of a city’s budget that can be drawn from traffic revenue, dropping it from 35 percent to 30 percent. There is now a push to bring it down further, to 20 percent.

    This really isn’t a solution. All it’s going to mean is the police will only issue larger citations for non-traffic “violations”. Which means the bloated police staffs won’t even be able to fund themselves on visitors and will instead have to feed off the residents even more.

    The problem is police and other payrolls in the towns are too big (along with the pensions). Consolidation does not address that, it’s merely a way to rob the residents of the neighboring town. STL has already tried that and it just means the neighboring town’s residents leave at their first opportunity. Only a progressive would think that an already-failed idea is the new cure.

    1. County cops don’t stop people for tickets to generate revenue for the county. They don’t have to, the county gets enough from other sources.

      The only cops that do it are the ones for the little towns, who have to pay to run all the government associated with their township. Because they don’t get all the money the county does.

  4. When you think small-town police departments that are rotten, think Piperton, Tennessee.

  5. I dunno. I think policing at the county level is much, much better.

    I live in Jefferson County, which is the south part of the metro area. I almost literally never see a cop unless he’s responding to something. The whole county is basically like that, except for one tiny area, Byrnes Mill, that has its own police force and constantly has its cops out looking for tickets to support it. There is zero reason for the Byrnes Mill police to exist from a crime perspective, it only exists to generate revenue to fund its city operations. Take away the city, and you take away the reason the police exist..

    They should centralize in the sense that we simply don’t need so many of these tiny municipalities. The county should be enough in most cases.

  6. Putting the police under the direct command of the federal government means that they will carry out more of their agenda without having to worry about state of local jurisdiction. Many Democrats and Republicans would like to ban E-cigs and impose sin tax across the nation.

    And this Ferguson “rage against the machine” is only temporary. As soon as the next crime hysteria is hyped by the media, everyone will be screaming for more police on the street. Nobody is actually going to cut spending on police or suggest they reduce the police force, NOBODY.

    The police should be relieved from most code enforcement. Cities should have lesser paid staff writing tickets, issuing citations or responding to domestic disputes. People without guns and aren’t trained to fight.

    SC says cops aren’t obligated to save your life. So why do they have to provide protection for politicians or events? If a antisemites in Berkeley wants to “occupy” school property to protest a Jewish speaker, campus security should handle them (following school protoccol, which is more humane, right?)

    The best solution is to limit police contact in mundane situations. As much as possible.

    1. Give cops the ultimate power over it’s citizens and it doesn’t matter if you call it “limited” or not. Cops and govt either have the final say over citizens’ behavior or they don’t. How much they exercise that power at any point in time is irrelevent given the inevitable nature of power to expand it reach.

  7. Totally OT:

    After years of effort, Vermont gives up pursuing single-payer health care


    Okay, I like that link too much. Expect to see it on a bunch of other threads if someone doesn’t do a story on it.

  8. Christ on a crutch.

    The solution to the problem of thousands of small, bloated, culturally rotten, inept police departments is to consolidate them into dozens of huge, bloated, culturally rotten, inept police departments?

    1. Good point – it is far easier for a handful of activists to get political change in a small community than it will be to get change in a large one.
      If the police in a town of 5,000 get out of hand, they are easier to reform than if the police in a city of 150,000 get out of hand.

      1. Assumes that the activists are advocating for positive change which is not at all the case and of course the idea of an oligarchy by radical and loud activists is obscene

        Anti police activists consist in many areas overwhelmingly of international Answer etc types who are just as wrong about police as they are about economics

        Imagine if the colossally ignorant who believe there was injustice in the Ferguson shooting got their way. That would result in worse, not better policing

        Just because somebody is complaining doesn’t mean they are right

  9. Excellent article and very true. Just as one can get a vastly more libertarian (and just plain better) living experience by choosing onr’s state carefully from the marketplace – I chose to move to a shall issue ccw, open carry w/o permit, nO income tax having state, that boasts a constitution and caselaw tgst is about the most restrictive on cops and give in the country.

    AND the tradition continues… We recently legalised mj, outlawed pretext stops AND did away with search of motor vehicle incident to arrest

    That’s right Washington is one of the few states that when you are arrested out of your motor-vehicle the cops do not have carte blanche to rifle through your car in a sort of legalised fishing expedition that applies in nearly every other state in the nation

    Dozens of other case like apples recognise Substantially higher protection of privacy rights from government agents for example there are no DUI Roadblocks in the state because they are unconstitutional under the state Constitution!!!

    1. Similarly one can choose what jurisdiction you were then based in part upon the police department that serves you and I chose an area with both low crime and a very well respected well liked and community responsive police department that takes massive amount of input from the general public at community meetings et cetera offers ridealongs to give people interested in betterpolicing a view from the inside and is very open in the discipline process of officers et cetera they also have no history whatsoever of using traffic tickets as a revenue gathering device and have no automated traffic cameras whatsoever just like most other police departments the policies and procedures for the local police are available on the Internet and they strike an excellent balance in terms of protecting officers rights and ferreting out bad officers and holding them accountable

      The chief is a real cop, not a Copocrat, who also has a very advanced education and is simply a good leader

      Choose your jurisdiction just like you choose your state and you can live with much greater privacy protections freedoms in general and superior policing

      Course in the real world a good community is intimately involved with the police department citizen watches citizen academy is et cetera and things like that instead of h&r
      Bitches who complain about the police from the basement but don’t do anything about it


  10. Sorry, but my ‘n’ is way larger than most people and anybody that thinks larger PD’s are, on average, better trained, more professional or more accountable is wholly ignorant

    There are great, decent, and shitty PD’s at EVERY size (and specialty – marine, university, county, city, park police, environmental police, combined fire/police, etc) but ime both as an employee, a training officer , and a person who works with officers from agencies of all sizes, ime, medium police depts tend to be better than large ones.

    Some small PD’s have BY FAR the best trained most accountable, most effective etc officers

    Looking in agencies hiring practices for example agencies that have a residency requirement on average are going to tend to suck more than those that don’t look at their requirements for education et cetera to get In will get whether they offer a ride along program and other factors of open government look at whether they post their policies and procedures online look at how much money they spend on training as a percentage of budgetlook at how much they pay their officers et cetera and all these factors can offer hints but there is just a substantial diversity in policing quality when you go from agency agency it’s actually pretty striking


    1. How much they pay is extremely important simply because police talent is just like any other talent and it tends to go where it gets the best benefits and pay and that’s why historically agencies like New Orleans PD have been just atrocious compared to agencies like for example Nassau County New York pd and of course you have to look in the area in a state like Hawaii where there is a monopoly on pay scale it doesn’t apply but in thePacific Northwest where is easy to change Pd on account of pay, the best payers that give the best benefits have by far the best officers.

      University Peadis better full-fledged officers and post certified also tend to have excellent officers since Many offer free university classes and stuff like that which is a huge benefit for those who get advanced degree

    2. Some small PD’s have BY FAR the best trained most accountable, most effective etc officers

      But, then, some small PD’s apparently have people like you.

  11. I’m disappointed not to find anything much here about “polycentric systems, in which political units of varying size can cooperate but act independently, without a clear hierarchy.”

    Harold Berman argued in Law and Revolution (1983) ? if I understood it right ? that the liberal humane features of our legal tradition exist because of a (former) lack of final authorities, and have been fading since the Enlightenment as our systems become more centralized, “scientific” and sure of themselves.

  12. polycentric works better, IN THEORY, that is, it CAN work better,

    however, as it stands now, it does NOT. The smaller suburban departments will always be forced to fund themselves through tickets and always have less accountability (because they don’t represent the more urban* people who actually get pissed at police brutality) as long as the current culture and political culture is the way it is.

    You’d have an easier time proposing a police merger than passing the reforms the author proposes.

    1. Edwin seems to read ‘polycentric’ as a synonym for ‘devolved’. It’s more than that: a polycentric system has no top level, no infallible final arbiter.

  13. keep it local if you want to keep control

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  17. Finally, I well-reasoned article. Kudos my man.

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