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August 28, 2015

MEGAN MCARDLE: “Black Lives Matter” Will Have Trouble Micromanaging Cops.

Fundamentally, they’re trying to answer a problem that has perplexed society for a long time: How do we send police out to control crime (which, we should remember, disproportionately affects minorities and the poor), while holding them accountable for not misusing the considerable power we’ve vested in them? It’s a life-and-death version of a broader question economists and business-school types have wrestled with: How do you manage professionals? Unfortunately, so far no one has come up with great answers.

Since police are not usually thought of as members of the professional class, let me define what I mean by a professional: someone who does a lot of work unsupervised, and whose output is important, yet hard to measure. Professionals tend to deal with some of the most sensitive and important issues that our society has, like treating illness and educating our children. It’s no accident that these people generally end up being regulated by their peers — and that the rest of us are frequently unsatisfied with the results. When professional groups decide what’s good for the rest of us, it usually turns out that what they think is good for the rest of us is what’s best for them.

This doesn’t have to be nakedly venal, and it often isn’t. College professors genuinely care about their students, lawyers about their clients, doctors about their patients, journalists about their readers, and yes, police care about the communities they serve. But when a proposal comes up that will hurt them in some way, it’s very easy for the professionals to see all the reasons against it, and to convince themselves that the world will be better off without it. And when it comes time to discipline a member for some offense, unless it is straightforwardly heinous, they will naturally sympathize with the accused, thinking of all the times they made mistakes that could have landed them in the same place.

The alternative seems obvious: Don’t let them regulate themselves. The Black Lives Matter proposal calls for two strong civilian oversight boards that do not include any police representatives, former cops or family members of cops. These boards would no doubt be tough on cops. But there’s a small problem, which is that you would have a board that has, at best, a 50 percent understanding of policing: The members might know what it is to be policed, but they will not know what it is to police. Excluding people with knowledge of the system from your regulatory board is not a formula for good decision making. If you constitute such a body, you are asking for open conflict with your police force, which will justifiably resent being told that they did their jobs wrong, all the more so if the charge is coming from people who have never tried to do the job. Because police officers spend a lot of time operating unsupervised, and do not have measurable outputs other than the time they put in, they will have a lot of ways to rebel against perceived unfairness.

Two thoughts. First, it’s cute to pretend that Black Lives Matter is actually about making policing better when it’s really just another Democratic party constituency agitprop group. Second, if you really want to improve policing (1) abolish official immunity; (2) require insurance for all police; (3) give people a choice of who polices their neighborhoods. That won’t happen, though, because it’s bad for public employee unions and it doesn’t make for appealing slogans designed to drive black voter turnout in November of 2016.