Federal Programs and the Real Cost of Policing
Rachel A. Harmon
Dozens of federal statutes authorize federal agencies to give money and power to local police departments and municipalities in order to improve public safety. While these federal programs encourage better coordination of police efforts and make pursuing public safety less financially costly for local communities, they also encourage harmful policing. Of course, policing often interferes with our interests in autonomy, privacy, and property, and those harms are often worthwhile in exchange for security and order. Federal public safety programs, however, are designed, implemented, and evaluated without reference to the nonbudgetary costs of policing. When those costs are high, federal programs can make local policing seem cheaper for communities, but actually make it more costly in its impacts and therefore less efficient.
The coercion costs of policing are overlooked in most assessments of policing policy, not just in federal programs. Ordinarily, however, even when they are not formally recognized, those costs are accounted for, at least to some degree, in local political processes because local government officials experience public ire when the harms of policing become too great. Unfortunately, federal programs also frequently undermine this check on the intrusiveness of local policing. Internalizing the nonbudgetary costs of policing depends on public capacity to monitor harmful police conduct and on city officials’ capacity to influence police conduct. Some federal programs interfere with these conditions by clouding responsibility for law enforcement coercion and by giving money directly to departments rather than to municipalities. Thus, federal programs not only ignore significant costs of the policies they subsidize, they also interfere with the usual local mechanisms for man- aging those costs. Until federal public safety programs are approached with a more complete understanding of policing—one that attends to its full costs and the need for accountability—federal programs will continue to promote policing practices that do more harm than necessary and maybe even more harm than good.