The Case for Privatizing Police

As the violence in Ferguson continues, there has finally been a national spotlight on police brutality and militarization. Although it may be too little too late, it is refreshing to see this issue finally take stage. The mainstream solution, which we have been spoon fed, is to spend over $230 million to outfit police with body cameras. This might sound like a good idea, but it does nothing to address the root of a systemic problem: strong armed State oppression of the poor. It is not that all police (as individuals) are racist or seek to cause harm, but that black people are generally poorer than whites and therefore easier to exploit through forced government decree (i.e. the war on drugs). Despite numerous cases of police abuse, I have yet to hear that a government monopoly on law enforcement is the root of this systemic problem. I think it’s time someone finally said it: we need to privatize the police. I will make this argument based on the state’s incentives and methods versus private incentives and methods.

It is important to first recognize that the State has no incentive to return your property or make you whole after a crime has been committed. This is a result of two things: a primary incentive to catch the bad guy and a secondary incentive to prosecute. Why? Because both of these things make the State’s “statistics” appear like they are doing a good job. Further, the State’s primary responsibility is to itself, as opposed to you, because their revenue is not generated by customers, but taxes. This statistical game does not benefit the tax payer or “society”, but rather makes for great talking points on the campaign trail.

As we have seen racial disparities in drug enforcement versus usage, the police have a huge incentive to pursue lower income citizens. They are less likely to have a strong legal defense and will quickly enter into a plea agreement – arguably because the State-provided defense will recommend it. Thus, arresting low income people for drug possession is a great way to boost aforementioned statistics, but the practice is damaging to community relations.

If an arrest is made for a property crime, which can be less than probable in some municipalities, I do not believe any aggregate social justice has been achieved. In order to “serve justice”, the State must embark on a manhunt and then jail, adjudicate, and provide housing for the criminal. As previously noted, the State will even provide a legal defense. But how do all these things happen? They are funded by the State extorting you, the aggrieved party, for money prior to, during, and after the circle of criminal justice. Put simply, if someone commits a property crime against you, you will ultimately be forced to pay for this person’s room and board for years to come. Even if you only want your property returned and not see the defendant jailed, the State can still pursue charges and force you to pay for it.

The major difference between government and private police is the incentives each possess. Private companies exist to serve their customer’s demands in the most efficient way possible. As previously noted, the State is primarily concerned with prosecution, whereas private police would be focused on making their customer (you) whole again – whether in the form of returned property or a pay-out. Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Whenever we face risk in life, how do we mitigate potential losses? We purchase private insurance (i.e. auto) that will cover part or all of your losses in the event of disaster, and all you do is pay a monthly premium. In the event of a loss, does the insurance company focus on their customer being whole again, or do they only pursue the other party involved? Even better, it’s usually both.

We buy insurance for our health, homes, cars, bank accounts, boats, life, business, and more. Why do we not extend the same premise to police protection and crime? If you think it would unaffordable, remember that you already pay for it, even if you never use the police service. The cost of government police is hugely inflated. As with all governmental activity, police departments are filled with waste, inefficiency, bureaucratic incompetence, and political games. Further, many police departments have now been unnecessarily issued military equipment meant for war zones. Although the federal program makes acquiring it “free” to local departments, the maintenance and upkeep for this equipment is very costly. For example, tax payers in small town Nebraska now have to foot the bill for the upkeep on their new armored vehicle, despite that there will likely never be a need for it. The cost is even further inflated with pointless ventures like drug prohibition and the draconian hunting-down of nonviolent drug offenders.

How would a private police service work? If Company A and Company B offer police protection, they will likely offer a monthly premium for their service. Since private companies are inherently more efficient, the cost to consumer would be much less than the current cost to tax payer. Let’s say you choose Company A. In the event your house is robbed, you would call Company A, much like you call the police. Company A would be primarily concerned with retrieving your property so that they do not have to make a pay-out to you. If the government police do not retrieve your property, you’re shit out of luck even if they make an arrest.

The next question is usually: “what about people who cannot afford it”. In private enterprise, it is commonplace for a firm to offer its services pro-bono, at a lower cost, or through a third party. This is because they wish to increase their brand’s perception (i.e. Ben and Jerry’s) with the intent of generating sales. Also, this claim often overlooks the obvious: low income neighborhoods still have private businesses which have a major interest in the general safety. If a business is located in a low income, high crime area, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that business owners would be willing to pay for a service to mitigate their own risk of crime and to protect their patrons. Thus, a safe neighborhood is good for business.

What happens when a customer (Fred) of Company B is attacked on the street with only officers from Company A immediately able to intervene? What if Fred has no police insurance? Would Company A’s officers just watch? The reality is much different. Private firms use any means necessary to maximize their value to consumers. What better way to gain new business (or take business from a competitor) than saving Fred’s life? If Company A’s officers saved Fred, he very well may switch to or purchase protection from Company A. Furthermore, if Company A has a significant number of customers in a determined area, they would likely allocate resources to that area to preserve the general interest of safety, regardless of who in the area is actually paying. Why? If it comes to be known that Company A is not adequately protecting their customer’s property, the market would direct consumers to Company B. This is extraordinarily true in a market where failure means loss of life or property. Also, Company A can reduce its pay-outs by maintaining a degree of safety, even in low income areas. This incentive is important because it makes them more profitable and desirable to consumers.

There is much more to be said on privatizing police, especially in the area of adjudicating police brutality. Currently, the State prosecutes its own officers and the taxpayers, even the one brutalized, are financially responsible for defending and prosecuting the officer. In most cases, the officer will walk free or receive a taxpayer funded vacation…and there is nothing you can do about it. With a private police company, there are numerous steps a consumer could take that would be severely harmful to said company.

In conclusion, police brutality stems from a State monopoly on policing, not racism. Not everyone needs police service, but we are all forced to pay for it. Some economists argue that a police force is a natural monopoly. While I disagree with that, it should be up to the market to decide and not a government enforced decree. Private firms, which allocate resources more efficiently, would deliver a more economic outcome that would make us better off. We would save billions in taxes and police brutality would come to an end. I’m not suggesting a private police force is the perfect solution, but that it is morally superior and economically desirable. We will probably never see a blanket privatization of police because of the powers that be, but I think we could make huge steps by advocating piece-meal privatization.

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