Federalized Police

This open letter was written by Karl Dahlke in February of 2017. You can visit my home page, or follow me on twitter or facebook.

In many towns the police have become our masters, rather than our public servants. Profiling, abuse, brutality, and even simple incompetence are at an all-time high. To be sure, mandatory body cameras, and the "Police Data Initiative" will help, but other structural changes are required. I hope you will consider the ideas put forth in this letter.

I would like to draw an analogy between the police and airport security. Prior to 9/11 airport security was haphazard, each airport hiring its own company to screen the passengers. Some agents were well trained, some were not. Some equipment was state of the art, some was hand-me-down xray machines from a nearby hospital. Some workers were courteous, some were rude. Some airports were vigilant, and some were lax. There was no economy of scale in training, in hiring, or in the purchase of equipment, and when a worker moved from one city to another he had to apply with a brand new company if he wanted to keep his job. It was a gross patchwork of inefficiency. So, after 9/11, George W. Bush federalized airport security under the Transportation Safety Administration. This was wise and long overdue. There was, unfortunately, considerable pushback at the time. A little company running airport security in a little town, raising nepotism to new hights, did not want to be taken over by the big bad federal government, and as expected, libertarians came out of the woodwork. For once, and this is rare, fear forced us to do the right thing. In the name of fighting terrorism, Bush pushed the bill through Congress, and they really couldn't say no. A decade later the advantages of the TSA are clear.

We face almost the same situation with the police. Training and equipment are haphazard, with no standardization and no economy of scale. As shown by Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, power corrupts, and with almost no oversight, the results can be disastrous. Harassment and brutality is often heaped upon the poor and/or the minorities, while the middle class remain comfortably safe and oblivious. What happens when a subconsciously racist officer shoots an unarmed citizen? His buddy in the department suspends him with pay, runs an investigation, and then puts him back on the force. Race riots are soon to follow, and suddenly our middle class citizens aren't as safe as they use to be.

In another town, the policeman is (appropriately) charged with a crime, but the jury in the same little town sympathizes with the police. "It's so hard to be a policeman, so stressful, fighting all that crime. It was an unfortunate, but understandable mistake." He is declared "not guilty", and he returns to the force, and race riots are soon to follow.

Sometimes the police abuse the disabled, particularly the mentally ill. This is truly unconscionable. Consider the story of an abused 77 year old blind man.

Following the successful model of the TSA, our police should be federalized. They would undergo background checks and extensive training, not just 6 months at the academy and hit the streets. Training includes understanding and recognizing the prejudices and biases that exist within us all, the intoxicating effects of power, and dealing with the mentally ill and the homeless. There are no quotas, and we don't hire more police than we need, whereupon they must hand out traffic tickets to minorities to justify their employment. furthermore, costs and fines do not support the police, courts, or jails, creating a dangerous positive feedback loop; instead, they are sent to a charity or other worthy cause. The emphasis is not on the number of tickets and arrests, or the amount of money they have forced their citizens to pay into the legal system so their little town can buy 100 shiny new Chargers. From the first day of training to the last day on the job, police are rewarded for fairness, civility, and good community relations.

Most police won't carry guns, but some will, and when a policeman shoots an unarmed citizen, (it will still happen once in a great while), it becomes a federal crime. His buddies in his little town aren't going to get him off the hook. The case will be heard in federal court and justice will be done. People will finally trust the police, and are more likely to adhere to the rule of law.

Note that state troopers almost never have tragic altercations with unarmed citizens, nor are they accused of profiling or harassment. Simply put, these officers are better trained. If local police forces were similarly trained and managed, by each state or by the federal government, we would see a similar reduction of incidents at the local level, yielding a better and more cooperative relationship between the police and our citizenry.

Federal oversight is a great idea, but like the TSA, there will be considerable pushback from precincts in towns and cities across America. "I can run my own police, I don't need the federal government taking over my operation." some will say. But yes, you probably do. Even if you were doing a pretty good job in your precinct you'll still benefit in the long run. Your police are safer on the streets because police and citizens across the country have a better working relationship, and law enforcement costs less through economy of scale.

Federalized Police has as much chance in Congress as Universal Healthcare, so like ObamaCare, we will have to settle for crude steppingstones along the way. Give Homeland Security, (or a new federal agency), the power and resources to train and maintain police, and then allow each town, each city, and each county to hire federalized police if they so choose. Conservatives shouldn't object to this since it is merely a matter of choice. Town after town will say yes to federal oversight, especially if their citizens are being systematically abused. The most egregious precincts will switch over first, and other cities will eventually switch when they realize that the cost of federalized law enforcement is less and the officers are better trained. Once 85% of the police are trained and equipped at the federal level, we can pass a law to bring the remaining 15% into the fold. It's going to be a long process, so let's get started!


Update in 2019. I use to live in Troy, and thankfully, I don't live there any more. The Troy police are so racist, they sometimes pull black people over for riding their bikes. Laughably, they put a cat on the force to improve community relations. This was so absurd it received national attention.