Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Stupid Economist Tricks: Pattern or Practice

Drawing by George Herriman. Via.

After the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police was filmed in 1991 and the film became public—the original viral video of police violence—the street demonstrations and (naturally) accompanying misbehavior and property damage eventually led to a more focused effort to do something about police violence, in which our friend Senator Joe Biden played a distinguished part. Namely, in his much-maligned 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, there was a provision allowing the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to step in whenever they saw evidence of a police department engaging in a "pattern or practice" of violating people's constitutional rights.

In what came to be called a pattern or practice investigation, a preliminary inquiry (which could be any DOJ lawyer reading a newspaper story) can lead to a formally announced review by designated experts of the department's training policies, disciplinary procedures, and day-to-day interactions with the public, and that can lead in turn to one of a list of possible actions: a Technical Assistance Letter, which is a form of friendly advice from DOJ to the department, not especially binding; a Memorandum of Understanding which is a more rigorous step but still doesn't involve the courts; or an actual lawsuit, which isn't meant to proceed to trial but to the negotiation of a Consent Decree, a legally enforceable agreement to whatever the department needs to do to rectify the situation. It quickly became a really good resource, at least sometimes, as my source for this history, a Bloomberg article from the Freddy Gray moment in 2015, explains, as in the case of one of the first investigations, that of the same Los Angeles Police Department:
In the best possible circumstances, the expense and time prove worthwhile. It took DOJ four years to reach a consent decree with the LAPD after opening its investigation in 1996. A Harvard study published in 2009 found that crime rates decreased significantly over the eight years that the consent decree was in force. People became more satisfied with the way officers conducted themselves, complaints of racial biases decreased, and “both the management and the governance of the LAPD have also changed for the better,” the study concludes.
Not only did it make life better for Angeleno victims of police harassment, but also for the victims of the crimes the police are supposed to prevent, as they did their work better. The unambiguous success of the LAPD decree may not be totally typical, but it's really been a valuable tool. So you can guess who has hated it, in addition to the police "unions", practically from the first moment of the Trump administration:
In a memo issued on March 31, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the second- and third-highest ranking DOJ officials “to immediately review all Department activities” that are, essentially, related to reforming policing practices. Included in this review are active and prospective consent decrees as well as grants, training, and technical assistance for law enforcement agencies. (American Progress)
And for that reason, there won't be a federal investigation of the Minneapolis police after the murder of George Floyd, as Chiraag Bains and Dana Muhlhauser note at in a really valuable review at WaPo:
This kind of investigation — called a “pattern or practice” investigation — has proved successful in police departments across the country. Unfortunately, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr refuses to open one in Minneapolis, and the Trump administration has all but abandoned them.
But the reason I'm bringing all this up is something I got yesterday from blogfriend Heim Yankel, pointing me to a paper (by Tanaya Devi and Roland G. Fryer Jr., via libertarian economics troll Tyler Cowen) on the economics of pattern or practice investigations. Not the money economics, but the human economics, if you will: offering evidence from the big cases of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati, Tyisha Miller in Riverside, and Michael Brown in Ferguson/Louisville, that any time a pattern or practice investigation follows the Internet eruption of a video like the George Floyd video, the announcement of the investigation  literally causes increases in the murder and general crime rate, and so DOJ shouldn't do it for cost-benefit reasons:
This paper provides the first empirical examination of the impact of federal and state "Pattern-or-Practice" investigations on crime and policing. For investigations that were not preceded by "viral" incidents of deadly force, investigations, on average, led to a statistically significant reduction in homicides and total crime. In stark contrast, all investigations that were preceded by "viral" incidents of deadly force have led to a large and statistically significant increase in homicides and total crime. We estimate that these investigations caused almost 900 excess homicides and almost 34,000 excess felonies.... 
To get a sense of how large this number is, the average number of fatal shootings of African American civilians by police officers in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Riverside and Saint Louis, per year, is 12.5. Thus, even if investigations cured these cities of all future civilian casualties at the hands of police, it would take approximately 75 years to “break even.” Our estimates suggest that investigating police departments after viral incidents of police violence is responsible for approximately 450 excess homicides per year. This is 2x the loss of life in the line of duty for the US Military in a year, 12.6x the annual loss of life due to school shootings, and 3x the loss of life due to lynchings between 1882 and 1901 – the most gruesome years.6
Though they can't tell whether it's a real phenomenon or not, and can't decide between two possible conclusions:
(1) these estimates from five cities are significant but they are estimated on “bubbles” in time and future investigations, even ones that are conducted on the basis of discriminatory policing only, will not have such negative impacts; or (2) these estimates from five cities are significant and are likely predictive of the impact of future investigations into the foreseeable future because the tension between minority communities and police has reached a tipping point. Our data cannot differentiate between these two, but will be known in the fullness of time.
Now, I'm not going to try to critique the statistical methodology, but it's clear that there's something wrong with this conceptually, if you try to imagine what course of action DOJ ought to take. What's the significance of the cost-benefit calculus in a case like this?

Should we stick with Sessions and Barr and simply never have a pattern or practice investigation again, not just for the investigations following a viral video eruption but also for the ones that didn't involve one? Should we only investigate the ones without a viral video, even though those cases are of less importance to the public? Should we have continual federal oversight of all police departments, so that there's always an ongoing investigation before the viral video drops? Would Barr like to save lives that way?

Are we morally obliged to pick one of these alternatives, to save 900 lives? Or is there some other way of seeing the responsibility chain in the data that favors some less silly approach?

There is, of course, and Bains and Muhlhauser aren't hiding it; it's right in the abstract:
The leading hypothesis for why these investigations increase homicides and total crime is an abrupt change in the quantity of policing activity. In Chicago, the number of police-civilian interactions decreased by almost 90% in the month after the investigation was announced. In Riverside CA, interactions decreased 54%. In St. Louis, self-initiated police activities declined by 46%.
You probably knew it already: it isn't the investigations that increase homicides and total crime. It's the officers' response to it, which is to take umbrage at being investigated and go on a kind of informal strike. Beat cops just stop showing up on the beat, and the deterrent effects of the patrol are lost to the neighborhood. 

Some have called it the "Ferguson effect", after the crime spike that followed the killing of Michael Brown, where officers claimed they were too scared, because of the increased distrust in the community—
When crime rates began to climb in St. Louis in late 2014, Police Chief Sam Dotson offered an intriguing explanation. A “Ferguson effect,” following the widely condemned killing of a black teenager by police in a nearby suburb, had led to trepidation on the part of some officers in enforcement situations, and to a feeling of empowerment among offenders...
In Chicago, shooting arrests dropped last year, but gun violence climbed in the months following the release of a video showing the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. “We have allowed our police department to get fetal, and it is having a direct consequence,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a meeting in 2015.
But they sound more honest when they say they're afraid of cell phone videos, or their personal body cams, and getting caught doing something illegal, and police "unions" may explicitly tell you they're doing it, as in August 2019, after Eric Garner's killer was finally dismissed, five years after the crime, from the force:

"We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed 'reckless' just for doing their job," Patrick Lynch, the longtime president of the Police Benevolent Association, said Monday after veteran Officer Daniel Pantaleo was fired.

"We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety," he added.

With the implication that they have to violate people's constitutional rights in order to "do their job", something that will "jeopardize their careers" if they're filmed doing it. 

Compare how nurses understand the right to strike:

A healthcare provider will go on a strike only for the purposes of being advantageous to the patients. Considering that a strike is conducted due to the complaints of inadequate staffing, exploitation, and low pay, the aim of the strike should be aligned with placing the patients’ interests in the focal point.

In this, benefits for the patients can be categorized as hard and soft. When the concern is that there are no sufficient healthcare providers to deliver quality care for the number of patients, or if the overexploitation is affecting your duties, then the aim of your negotiations will be to provide hard benefits to the patients. On the other hand, the soft benefits will be to have healthcare providers who are compensated well and satisfied with their jobs. 

The cops' representative expresses no awareness of the interest of the public whose safety they are supposed to be protecting, only in their own perceived need to break the rules and cock a snook at the Constitution with impunity.

Which is what this new study seems to confirm, with its very precise account of the timing of these go-slow actions, almost always keyed to the announcement of an investigation. It's being done to frighten the public, and through that to put pressure on the investigators to leave them alone. An example cited by Bains and Muhlhauser:
“As she was preparing to leave, I asked this officer if she was willing to admit that the conflict with [State Attorney] Mosby, and the mutual mistrust, has led police officers to pull back from their essential duties. One of the most discouraging statistics in Baltimore has been a 63 percent increase in homicides last year...“Absolutely,” she said. “You should get used to 300 murders a year.” Baltimore vs. Marilyn Mosby, New York Times, September 28, 2016.
And if anybody's guilty of those nearly 900 deaths since 2000, it's those cops, pigheadedly refusing to work under supervision, demanding the right to abuse members of the community regardless of the rules imposed on them, and essentially blackmailing the public to get what they want. It's not a labor action but an extortion racket.

And if there's a solution, it won't be in Sessions's and Barr's terms of just refusing to do investigations, but on the model of what was done in Camden: building better police departments (and unions, like nurses' unions, which famously don't have a shortage of labor radicalism) around the public interest.

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