Dear Fellow Leo:

In Washington there’s an old saying: You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu. Well, if you’re like me, you’re tired of bites being taken out of your behind by a misled public and by cowardly public officials. This is why I have been gratified to read of the participation of so many police unions in various reform discussions. I believe we serve our own interests, as well as those of our communities, when we adopt a pro-reform agenda in a fashion consistent with police best practices and community safety. 

Let’s be clear-eyed about what’s at stake. While some of us might think that politicians who chant “defund the police” couldn’t possibly mean it, I assure you that a certain percentage of them are as serious as an armed robbery. When indoors and away from crowds, what they will tell you is that the chant refers to replacing patrol officers with other forms of civil servants. 

The problem posed by this idea is not that it might work – I give it the same odds as an un-doped horse to win the Triple Crown – but that it popularizes the notion that law enforcement agencies are an appropriate place to look for budget savings, that police are simply not worth it. Now as a Libertarian, I am no fan of government spending; but all but the most committed anarchists would have to admit that when it comes to public safety, there is no return on investment like a cop. 

But I Don’t Like Change 

Nobody likes change. But change we do, every year, year after year, and change we will for as far as the eye can see. All we’re discussing is what that change is going look like. Anyone who’s been a LEO for at least ten years, as I have, knows the business has changed in important ways even over this relatively brief span. And, please, don’t try to convince me that mine is the only agency in the memo-of-the-month club. Training to update my use of force policy has introduced so many nuances that the next time a suspect runs from me I’m going to throw the book at him – literally. So who do you want writing that book, foresighted police leadership engaged in the political process, or election-minded politicians who can’t spell indictment? 

What’s in It for Me? 

Plenty, starting with more money. The reason law enforcement officers don’t make more money is that there’s virtually no market for seasoned professionals. Employers too often in many states handcuff officers with pensions that are not portable. And as union members, we handcuff each other with contracts that implement starting salaries that disregard years of service with another agency. How much more would you get paid if every agency in your state were competing for your services on a level playing field? (More importantly, how much more would I get paid?) 

Why don’t we negotiate for contracts that allow for the development of a free market? Three reasons. First, from the point of view of any single agency, there’s no self-interest in making it easier for police officers to leave. Second, from the point of view of any one union, there is no self-interest in rewarding new officers for accumulating their experience outside the agency. Third, municipalities typically negotiate with only one objective: Cost reduction. Until now. 

Now is the time employers should be asking for something more than smaller raises, if for no other reason than public pressure. Now is the time politicians should be willing to trade dollars for reasonable reform measures. After all, no one should be arguing that the sophistication and sensitivity desired in modern police work should be delivered by a cheaper professional. And we should be only too happy to oblige. But creating a market by overcoming legacy contractual barriers will require political leadership. 

What Do You Want From Me? 

The popular watchword is accountability. No one should be discussing compromise to due process, either internally or in court. But, we need to continue to communicate to the public the timeless truth that there is no tolerance – and there can never be tolerance – for criminal behavior in a police force. 

Neither should citizens’ rights to their day in civil court be compromised, which is why civil liability has its rightful place in holding agencies accountable. While we support making civil court justice more accessible to citizens, we also recognize that employers must continue to meet their responsibility to indemnify officers for behaviors that fall within the scope of their job. In other words, it’s not a change in the courts’ treatment of qualified immunity that officers should fear; it’s a change in the extent to which employers try to offload their own liability onto us.

In the modern world, both officers and agencies will have to be accountable to objectives other than merely avoiding criminal behavior. The process of pairing officers with those agencies best suited to utilize each officer’s strengths and interests is what a free market is all about. But that process is stymied by contracts bent on career tenure. In the long run, officer compensation, career satisfaction, agency effectiveness and public image are all improved when markets operate more like those in place for other professions. 

The formula is not difficult to imagine, just look to any other industry. If I were running a city in today’s political environment, what I would want are contracts that allow for dismissal for misalignment of officer capabilities with my objectives; I would want the right to pay high performing officers more than low performing; and I would be willing to pay a whole lot of money to get what I want. Indeed, I wouldn’t want an officer willing to do the job for what I now get paid. 

When we champion contracts that suppress performance differentiation, we adopt an old-fashioned look that doesn’t wear well. We look like public school teachers, another group whose community standing has been eroded lately. And our public image is not to be dismissed lightly – it affects our own well-being as well as our ability to maintain safety. 

Justice Reform Is on the Table 

As a Libertarian, I don’t like the criminalization of so-called “victimless crimes,” such as simple possession. Nor do I like government intrusion into private behaviors among consenting adults. It’s hard to argue that our system has done a good job reducing either addiction or street crime. 

As an economist, I also don’t like the effects of our justice system on low- and moderate-income families, including the length of our prison sentences, by far the longest in the world. It’s hard to argue that our system has done a good job of promoting safety or reducing poverty.

The transmission belt of inter-generational poverty is the connection between our horrible public schools and the bad parenting choices that our public school graduates grow-up to make in the absence of better economic and social opportunities. The justice system has become an important piece of that transmission belt. 

As police officers, we see these mechanisms play out every day. I believe it is, therefore, incumbent upon us to speak up in the debate over criminal justice. I further believe it to be in our own interest to be seen as allies of the reform-minded. Alternatively, we can push away from the negotiating table. But if we do, let’s do the politicians another favor and sprinkle a little salt and pepper on each other.