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The Business Model of Police Brutality

Why do cities pay police to cause destruction, misery, and poverty, which are antithetical to the goals cities normally stand for?

There is an apparent paradox, visible in almost every American city this week. City governments want prosperity and tranquility. Elected officials benefit from happier voters, taxpayers, and businesses. Yet, police this week have been visibly, brutally opposed to these city goals.

A line of uniformed, armored police carrying nightsticks
Minnesota State Patrol stand at E Lake St and 29th Ave S in Minneapolis. Photo: Lorie Shaull

Police have systematically attacked peaceful protestors, clogging jails and hospitals, destroying medical supplies, and sending clouds of tear gas into residential neighborhoods. Police have instigated destructive riots and looting that reduce city tax base and cause expensive lawsuits. Police are making citizens and cities less prosperous, less safe, and far less tranquil. And they are paid by city governments to do this.

Why? Why do police take actions directly opposed to the cities that employ them? I've done my best to use my experience as an entrepreneur, and the professional perspectives of others, to discover the incentives that motivate police to thwart their employers' goals. Here is my best understanding of the business model of police brutality.

Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis city council member, describes the relationship between police and his city as a "protection racket." He reports that police respond more slowly to calls in the Minneapolis ward that Fletcher represents if Fletcher takes any action the police see as against their interests. Presumably, the same could occur citywide: the police can reduce their quality of service if the city does something they don't like. They have leverage over the city.

According to Fletcher, this leverage is exerted via police unions. In market terms, one can think of the police union as the seller of security services, and the city as the customer. Because there is only one seller, this market is a monopoly. As is typical in monopolies, quality of service is low and prices are high. The union uses its leverage to raise the price, i.e., acquire more city funding. Police unions can plausibly claim the funding is needed to provide better service, even in those cases where the lack of service is in fact a negotiating tactic.

Deodorant companies advertise to us the idea that we smell bad. This is because sellers do not merely satisfy market demand; they have an incentive to induce demand in customers. Similarly, police have an incentive to induce demand for security services. The unresponsive police service that Fletcher describes in his ward can be thought of as way of generating demand by increasing crime, and more importantly, the perception of crime. Another, more dramatic way to create demand for security services is to cultivate riots, looting, and other kinds of disorder.

Pouring milk into the eyes of a protestor who is laying down
Police deployment of tear gas Minneapolis on the evening of May 28, 2020. Photo: Dan Aasland

Journalist Rachel Olding of the Daily Beast was shocked at the "complete anarchy" in Midtown Manhattan on the night of June 1st. She reports that "literally hundreds" of storefronts on Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Sixth Avenue were looted, with no police opposition. Reporter Keith Feldman of NBC recorded looters pulling up to SoHo business in expensive cars, including a Rolls Royce, to haul off merchandise. This looted area of Manhattan is (or was) filled with flagship stores and pricy boutiques. It is the highest value shopping area in the city, and possibly in the United States.

City police were active nearby in huge numbers at the time of the looting. The New York Times reports that police "vastly outnumbered the peaceful protestors" who had gathered to pray and sing gospel songs at the National September 11 Memorial a few miles south of the epicenter of the looting.

Why were the police out in overwhelming force at a peaceful event, when a fraction of those officers could have been allocated to prevent looting? As there had already been extensive looting in the same location the previous day, officials seemingly should have been able to predict the looting of June 1st. Failing that, police seemingly could have moved the short distance to the site of the looting shortly after it began, rather than leave it "lawless," in Olding's words, with "kids ruling the streets like it was a party."

Economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, in his blog, considered the apparent tolerance for looting. One speculation he published is that permitting looting is a matter of signaling. By making it clear that looting and widespread private property destruction will be tolerated, it "teaches a lesson" to liberal New York politicians would oppose police in union contract negotiations. Cowen also mentions that tolerance for looting may serve to conflate protesters and looters.

There may, of course, be emotional motivations to punish city officials or protesters for their liberalism or their anti-police stances. There are also economic incentives. Looting that harms wealthy, powerful retailers could result in those retailers attempting to protect themselves by pressuring the city to spend more on policing. Citizens who perceive their city as dangerously lawless may also vote for more police funding. To keep voters and businesses temporarily happy, city administrators feed more cash into the union that is, to use the description of Javier Morillo, extorting Minneapolis.

This is not to say that the police unions are only an extortion machine. Our communities do to some extent need security services. Police provide these services, however imperfectly. The collective bargaining power of unions helps to ensure good treatment of workers, such as limited working hours.

But the police unions also respond to perverse incentives. Police unions try to ramp up sales by holding their product out as the solution to more and more problems. This puts police in increasingly inappropriate roles. Alex S. Vitale, author of the 2017 book The End of Policing, notes the massive expansion in scope of policing over the last 40 years or so. Police increasingly replace mental health workers, school administrators, and youth leaders. These same market forces drive more expenditure on equipment and weapons, leading to police militarization.

When police become militarized, they need not merely tolerate destruction and looting; they gain the power to incite it.

On May 30th, police in Lincoln, Nebraska used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful crowd of protestors blocking a busy intersection. That night, vandals attacked and burned government and government-adjacent office buildings. An obscure office called the Nebraska Association of County Officials was subject to so much smashing of glass, cubicle walls, computers, and printers that employees are not expected to be able to return to work for months.

According to video evidence, 30 to 40 vandals spend at least 45 minutes wrecking the building. Additionally, windows in the Nebraska State Capitol were broken. A nearby office building was burned down, costing an estimated $10 million. We don't know the identities of the vandals, or their motivations, with certainty. To me, it seems unlikely that they were filled with rage specific to the Nebraska Association of County Officials. I speculate they wanted retribution on their government for the recent brutality visited on peaceful demonstrators.

This pattern has played out in city after city — an attack on citizens by their police, followed by retributive destruction. Lincoln issued a 9pm curfew intended to halt the destruction. But curfew violations also provide a further pretext for police to use force. In Phoenix on May 31st, police blocked streets, then released tear gas into the captive crowd when the curfew arrived. With the streets closed, gassed protestors fled into yards of the nearby Garfield neighborhood. Police "swarmed" the residences, "hunting" for protestors. A woman who was not participating in protests was tackled and arrested on her own porch. Garfield residents reported being much more afraid of the police than any protestors. Hundreds of people were arrested in the neighborhood for curfew violation.

Pouring milk into the eyes of a protestor who is laying down
Emergency treatment with milk of a Minneapolis who was attacked with tear gas by police. Photo: Hungryogrephotos

Police aggression that gives way to retributive, symbolic vandalism creates more demand for police services in order to protect property. The arson of a $10 million dollar office building appears to justify millions more in police spending to prevent it from happening again. Thus the police generate their own demand through crackdowns.

This would appear to indicate that causing property destruction does not work to punish police misbehavior, because it just feeds the police more funding. But that's not necessarily true in every case because there may be other, competing incentives.

In Lincoln on June 1st, crowds shortly after curfew grew into the thousands yet remained peaceful. Police in riot gear emerged from the steps of the Capitol building, moving toward protestors. When the huge crowd stood firm, police backed off and retreated inside of the building. They had been unable to enforce the curfew. There was no violence. The mayor ended the curfew the next day.

We don't know the reasons that those particular police chose to back off. One possibility is the vivid memory of the arson and destruction of government buildings that had taken place the previous night. Though police generally have an interest in inciting property damage, there may be some threshold of destruction beyond which police are not inclined to go. Any pressure police receive from government and business to avoid destruction is weak, as the police have them locked in a protection racket, but perhaps it still exists to some extent. Seeing the size of the crowd and contemplating its destructive potential may have been what caused police to restrain their customary brutality.

The business model of police brutality is intimidation linked to extortion. In law, governments are said to have a monopoly on violence; in the case of police, this is a literal market monopoly. Police occupy a fortification, surrounded by an economic moat. Mass public opposition is one of the few things that can menace their fortification. So criticism must be put down with uncompromising force.

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