How Free Market Principles Can Improve Policing Past 2021


Emily Mooney
Former Resident Fellow & Manager, Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties

Key Points

While law enforcement agencies are a part of the public sector, improved application of basic management principles uplifted in the free market—such as strong vision and mission statements, targeted responsibilities, knowledge processes and aligned incentives—can bring substantial benefits.

Given the negative outcomes when law enforcement agencies solely focus on public safety, police agencies should amend their mission and vision statements, and the recruitment and professional development strategies which flow from them, to take community health into consideration.

Both law enforcement and the public stand to benefit from revisions to the policing mandate: police are being asked to do too much and to engage in activities outside of their comparative advantage. Instituting alternative community responder models and rethinking policing in educational settings are two ways to refocus policing time and resources.

Press Release

Effective Police Reform can be Achieved with Free Market Principles


Eight minutes. It took less than eight minutes for what should have been a mundane law enforcement encounter to lead to series of actions that ultimately resulted in a civilian’s death. The world watched a police officer—someone who swore an oath to serve and protect—put his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father, and dismiss his urgent warnings that he could not breathe. And the fragile trust between law enforcement and many in the communities they serve further disintegrated. While 56 percent of white adults surveyed in a Gallup poll shortly after Floyd’s death reported having “quite a lot” or a “great deal” of confidence in American law enforcement, only 19 percent of Black adults could say the same.

Millions gathered to protest in cities and towns across the United States, with the late civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis stating: “There may be some setbacks, there may be people who will stand in our way, but we will not go back. We’ve come too far, and we’re not going to give up now.” For Lewis and other members of the Black community, Floyd’s death was not an anecdotal, exceptional account of injustice; rather, it reflected decades—nay centuries—of lived experiences of mistreatment by police and the criminal justice system writ large. George Floyd is far from the only Black American on the list of people killed by police: Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Tamir Scott and other names fill out the legacy of police violence. Surveys have repeatedly shown that Black Americans have vastly different experiences with, and thus perceptions of, police. And numerous academic studies have revealed statistically significant racial differences in several areas of police decision-making, even when controlling for a robust set of factors—although determining the impetus for and solutions to address these disparities is often more complex.

To be clear, while use of force and other police actions disproportionately impact Black Americans, they are not the only demographic group who encounter police and stand to gain from improvements to policing practices. Latinos, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are also disproportionately impacted by some police actions. And the sheer scope of Americans impacted by police decision-making underscores the need for goals which improve total police efficacy as well as reduce racial inequalities where they exist. According to the “Fatal Force” database, at least 968 Hispanic Americans, 1,387 Black Americans and 2,658 white Americans have been killed by police since the beginning of 2015. And in 2019 alone, over 1.1 million Hispanic Americans, 1.8 million Black Americans, and almost 4.7 million white Americans were arrested. Millions more Americans encounter police after becoming a victim of crime or calling for police services. Therefore, thoughtful improvements to the ways police departments serve and protect local residents have the potential to positively impact virtually every person in America.

Police departments also stand to benefit from reforms. According to the most recently published survey data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 2 percent of the 61 million U.S. residents in 2018 who experienced contact with police reported experiencing a nonfatal threat of or use of force. This means that the overwhelming majority of contacts with police result in neither a threat or use of force. Yet a use-of-force incident gone awry can understandably result in years of mistrust and large legal liabilities; and 2 percent of people still equates to over a million experiences of threatened or realized force. To uphold the mission of law enforcement, and to restore police legitimacy and collaborative relationships with residents, it is important to prevent these incidents from occurring. Likewise, police departments are regularly asked to take on social service responsibilities for which they are not well-trained or equipped—for example, responding to the mentally ill, to adolescents misbehaving in schools and to those who have issues with substance-abuse or addiction. They stand to benefit from reforms which clarify their responsibilities according to their unique skills and training.

Accordingly, this paper seeks to lay out a pragmatic case for how to improve policing past 2020 by applying free market management principles: namely, the development of a strong mission and vision that promotes community health and safety; improving the flow of knowledge throughout an organization; revising responsibilities and using incentives to promote ideal behavior. Each section provides one or two policy recommendations that stem from these larger principles.

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