Oct 13, 2009

A Nobel Prize in Economics … About Police Departments?

Usually, criminologists don’t pay that much attention to what economists are doing – or vice versa. This week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize for various disciplines, gave us good reason to reconsider the link between economics and policing.

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to with the Nobel Prize in this category, was recognized for her contributions to the “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.” What does this mean? Ostrom has successfully demonstrated that commonly-shared property (such as fish stocks, grassland, or groundwater basins) is often better-managed by pools of users than by government structures or private entities. The idea is that local systems of users often develop subtle and refined regulations for usage over time, including practices for monitoring and enforcement that protect the resource, even when the benefits to users are only modest.

What does this have to do with policing?

One of Ostrom’s early projects tested the presiding assumption that police departments centralized at the city level created economies of scale that resulted in more efficient policing. To the contrary, Ostrom’s survey of 80 metropolitan areas found that small, locally-controlled forces are more effective than a large, city-wide controlled police force in meeting citizen demands for neighborhood police protection. As Ostrom noted in a later article, “For patrolling, if you don’t know the neighborhood, you can’t spot the early signs of problems, and if you have five or six layers of supervision, the police chief doesn’t know what’s occurring on the street.” This point was made in 1974, and almost twenty years later, police departments like that of Chicago decentralized their organizations to encourage officers to proactively identify and address sources of crime and disorder in their patrol areas. Community-based policing took root and now much of the federal funding provided by the Department of Justice for local crime issues requires locally-based teams of law enforcement agents and community partners to work together at the neighborhood level. (For more on this, check out the Project Safe Neighborhoods website at the Department of Justice.)

The basic idea is intuitive: that the people who own the resource are more likely to shepherd it wisely – this is as important an insight for crime and public safety as it is for environmentalism!