In a press conference Monday, Dallas Police Chief David Brown admitted that the American propensity for sending the police to deal with every minor social problem has failed:

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country” said Brown.

“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve” said Brown. He listed mental health, drug addiction, loose dogs, failing schools as problems the public expects ‘cops to solve.’

“Seventy percent of the African American community is being raised by single women, let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well” said Brown. “Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Brown is right.

In America today, the police are used as a general agency to intervene in nearly any unpleasant situation that may arise. It has become a sign of the times to see a headline like this one: “Mom calls 911 over son’s video-game habit.” In this case, the police were actually dispatched to solve the woman’s problem — free of charge. According to NBC news: “Two officers who responded to the house persuaded the child to obey his mother.”

Then, there was the case of the woman who called 911 because Burger King got her order wrong.

Cases like these are extreme, of course, and largely serve as click bait for readers looking for the outrage of the day. Nevertheless, they are reminders that very little of what the police do in modern America involves the prevention and punishment of violent crime or property crime.

This is a modern innovation, and in the past, the police, the courts, and armed law enforcement agents in general were designed to address primarily violent crime and property crime. In their book Introduction to Criminal Justice, Joseph Senna and Larry Siegel write:

Police are expected to perform many civic duties that in earlier times were the responsibility of every citizen: keeping the peace, performing emergency medical care, and dealing with civil emergencies. Today, we leave those tasks to the police. Although most of us agree that a neighborhood brawl must be broken up, that the homeless family must be found shelter, or the drunk taken safely home, few of us want to jump personally into the fray: we’d rather “call the cops.”

John Dempsey and Linda Forst agree, noting:

We might agree with [Senna and Siegel]. They say that the police role has become that of a social handywoman or handyman called to handle social problems that citizens wish would just go away.

The data suggests that they are right. In research on calls to police and police activities, we find that most of what leads to calls to the police involves something other than criminal activity.

Dempsey and Forst continue:

“[I]n a classic study of patrol activities in a city of 400,000, John Webster found that providing social service functions and performing administrative tasks accounted for 55 percent of police officers’ time and 57 percent of their calls. Activities involving crime fighting took only 17 percent of patrol time and amounted to about 16 percent of the calls to the police. Robert Lilly found that of 18,000 calls to a Kentucky police department made during a four-month period, 60 percent were for information, and 13 percent concerned traffic problems. Less than 3 percent were about violent crime, and approximately 2 percent were about theft.

In the Police Services Study (PSS), a survey of 26,000 calls to police in 24 different police departments in 60 neighborhoods, researchers found that only 19 percent of call involved the report of a criminal activity.

Part of the reason we hear so little about the lack of law enforcement activities among police is because the police themselves prefer to portray themselves as spending most of their time hunting down “bad guys.” This isn’t the reality, but as George Kirkham observed:

The police have historically overemphasized their role as crime fighters and played down their more common work as keepers of the peace and providers of social services, simply because our society proffers rewards for the former (crime fighting) but cares little for the latter (peacekeeping and providing services).

Nevertheless, as research by Matthew Hickman and Brian Reaves has shown, a sizable amount of police agency time and resources goes to non-crime-related activities including animal control,  search and rescue, school crossing services, emergency medical services, civil defense, fire services, “crime prevention education,” and underwater recovery operations. Police are also used for parking enforcement, traffic direction, and commercial vehicle enforcement.

Police have become a general agency for dealing with minor neighborhood disputes such as unkempt lawns, and children playing “unsupervised” on their own property. One might call the police if a family member refuses to take his medication, or if a family member is suicidal but no threat to the community. These activities have no connection to “crime fighting.”

Nevertheless, residents have become acquainted to calling the police on even the most benign activities,  such as the case of a suburban man who called the police because a neighbor’s father was “suspiciously” walking through the neighborhood. Too lazy (or cowardly) to approach the man — an slow-moving grandfather who gave no indication of being violent — and ask him what he was up to, the “vigilant” citizen called the police instead

Heavily Armed, Taxpayer-Funded Arbitrators

Given that police services are generally fully subsidized by taxpayers, this is to be expected.

Since calling the police requires no financial obligation on the part of the caller, calling the police on neighbors or others in the community — including non-criminals — offers a low-cost means to intimidate or hassle others at nearly-zero cost to the one calling 911.

But, as history has shown, this is not the only way to handle disputes. As recounted by Michael Giuliano here, the use of government sanctions against a neighbor once required a demonstration in court that the offender had inflicted damages against the alleged victim. Obviously, this sort of due process could be costly and time consuming. So, why go through all that trouble when numerous calls for the police might frighten one’s adversary enough to obviate the need for court action?  The fact that these police services are “free” contributes to their widespread over-utilization. As with any subsidized activity, you’ll get far more of it than if the service were not subsidized.

In all of these cases, though, the problem does not necessarily lie with wishing to call in a third party that might act as a mediator or arbitrator. Calling in a third party is often prudent. The problem here lies with the fact that these services are all expected to be at someone else’s expense, and handled by people with guns as the very first step in resolving the situation.

What If Other Industries Were Like Police Services?

Imagine if the same standards were applied to other industries. In the case of health care, for example, if the public expected the same model as employed in policing, people would be regularly calling in to demand house calls from medical personal for every broken bone or abrasion. In practice, though, rides to the hospital in an ambulance are costly, and patients are expected to bear at least some of the cost of medical services. Similar conditions apply in non-police search and rescue operations in which the victim often receives a bill in the mail after being rescued from some wilderness misadventure.

With policing, however, there is no cost at all to demanding armed police show up to confront an elderly man walking down the street. One can do it repeatedly at no charge to the one making accusations.

One can only guess what health care costs would look like were ambulance services performed on a similar model.  Obviously, if these services were provided for free, the utilization of ambulances and paramedics would quickly outstrip the supply, thus drawing services away from more serious injuries and driving up the cost of the response to far more pressing emergencies. After all, scarcity does not disappear because policymakers have decided something should be free.

The same is true of police services. Every minute that a police officer spends searching someone for marijuana possession is a minute not available for recovering stolen property or locating violent criminals.

Moreover, the incessant usage of police for everything from animal control to medical services means government agents trained in armed confrontations with criminals will be continually brought into situations that do not warrant such a response. Often, an unarmed expert with actual training in dealing with the mentally ill or the homeless is a far wiser approach. When police are used they way they are, we should not be surprised if these situations then escalate into violence.

No matter how poor a fit the police may be for a given situation, though, the fact that police services are mostly paid for by someone else provides an incentive for their continued use  in a myriad of situations.

A Modest Proposal: Partial Privatization

The answer to this situation is privatization. In a world where police can be used to address every minor complaint, there will be no incentive on the part of the public to limit the use of police services to true emergencies and criminal behavior. If those who use police services were expected to pay for the service, however, we would quickly find a reduction in the habit of calling the police for services unrelated to crime. Moreover, a reduction in police services in these cases would also open up markets for private firms to address these issues at lower cost and with less threat of deadly force.

Naturally, opponents of privatization will complain that privatization will lead to only big corporations and rich people being able to benefit from crime prevention services. As Murray Rothbard and Tate Fegley have shown (see herehere, and here), this is an unconvincing argument.

In the spirit of compromise, however, let’s begin with baby steps and limit taxpayer-provided police services to criminal activities only. Even better, let’s limit them to real violent crime and property crime, and not to non-crimes such as drug offenses and “crimes” such as carrying knives and selling loose cigarettes.

For now, “crime prevention” would still remain “free.” If, however, you want to call in people with guns to get your son off the Xbox, you can pay a private firm for that.


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