A Modest Proposal to Reduce the Likelihood of Unjustified Shootings by Police

Ferguson protest
At this point, it is becoming evident that there is something about the way police officers are trained in this country, or about the culture that seems to pervade police departments, that needs to change. We can speculate about why this is so (or argue whether it is so). Greg Howard at Deadspin has smart things to say about the militarization of police forces (when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail). I have a lot of ideas about the general stratification of society along race and class lines, and how that plays out in policymaking, law enforcement, and perceptions of poor, minority neighborhoods. But whatever the causes, it is safe to say that black men dying unnecessarily at the hands of police is a problem, and one society cannot quickly fix. So perhaps we should consider some sort of temporary solution.

Many radical friends have offered all manner of quick solutions that I think are silly and impractical, because they fail to take into account that police officers, like people generally, are mostly good and kind. If we accept that principle, the only explanation for the unreasonable use of force is that it comes from being a cop: something about the training and the accepted place in society of police officers has a predictable effect on their behavior. In short, it’s a workplace issue. And because this is a website about work and money, I would like to propose a workplace-based solution using economic incentives: let’s give cops extra pay for the bullets they don’t shoot.

You may recall hearing this idea advanced as a crime-reduction proposal by that eminent student of criminology, Chris Rock: “If bullets cost $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders.” He said it for a laugh, but we know that in fact, economic incentives affect the way people do their jobs, even in professions where we wish that weren’t so. Doctors, for example, will order more tests at greater cost and will tend to admit more patients to hospitals when their compensation is tied to the revenue derived from each patient, even when the extra treatment doesn’t improve outcomes. And it is a widely accepted fact that corruption among civil service workers can be nearly eliminated by raising their wages (pdf). In psychological experiments, just getting people to think abstractly about the concept of money makes them behave more selfishly (pdf). So what if we gave police a financial incentive to shoot only when absolutely necessary? What if cops got a 2% bonus for every full calendar month that they went without discharging their weapons in the line of duty?

The obvious objection to this idea is that police work is too dangerous, and that it would be foolhardy to create constraints that might prevent cops from doing whatever was necessary to save lives, including their own. The problem with this argument is that police work, while dangerous, isn’t as dangerous as we think. Take what the friend of a friend said on Facebook:

My husband is a cop and it’s been a struggle for me because I’m always for the rights of citizens. I’m always telling him have compassion because most people aren’t criminals. But it’s hard to separate the common citizen from the bad guy when they all look the same. And God forbid, the one time he drops his guard and someone reaches for his gun to shoot him. It happens! Cops die all the time! I hear about it from my husband, through his brotherhood but the mainstream people NEVER know.

My anecdotal impression is that mainstream people do know, or at least think they know, that cops are in fairly constant danger of attack and of having their guns used against them. But that’s actually not true. In 2013, 30 officers were killed by intentional gunfire in the entire country. That’s all guns, not just their own weapons. Now, 30 deaths is not nothing—it’s way more than nothing (the children of a dead cop get no solace from knowing that the way she died was statistically unlikely), but it is really really rare. Of the 105 line-of-duty deaths in 2013 (again, a vanishingly small number in a nation with roughly 780,000 cops), 38 were intentionally caused in any way by another person (gunfire, stabbing, bomb, or vehicular assault). “Police officer” is not among the ten most dangerous jobs in this country. In short, and thankfully, police officers are not at great risk of being murdered.

It also strikes me as unlikely that police would compromise their own or other people’s safety by not shooting just to earn an extra $1,000 (the average salary for a cop in the US is a little more than $50,000). I suspect that most people who perceived a genuine risk of death would happily give up a lot more than a grand for their safety. And we shouldn’t discount the fact that most cops probably chose their profession because they want to help people. We hear stories all the time of acts of selfless heroism by police officers. Compared to that, sacrificing money seems easy. (Also, a cop who unjustifiably fails to use her gun to save some innocent person will probably face disciplinary proceedings and possibly firing, and that’s a behavioral incentive, too.) In essence, I think that in the circumstances where it really matters, where the risk is overwhelmingly apparent, cops will not hesitate to shoot, and they will not regret the money they lose as a result.

But the situations that shock us—like the killing of Michael Brown in Missouri—are seldom the ones where the risk is inarguable. In that case, the officer’s version of events is that Brown tried to grab the officer’s gun by reaching through the window of a police truck, whereupon the officer shot Brown at close range. Then, according to the officer, Brown was shot again when he was 35 feet away. You would think that a sense of professionalism, a wealth of training, and the natural revulsion that humans tend to feel at hurting other humans would be enough to prevent this sort of thing, but somehow, those things don’t always work. So maybe a financial incentive will help.

Obviously, this proposal is a band-aid solution. It does nothing to address the hostility and distrust that have developed over the years between police and poor communities of color. It cannot undo the institutionalized harassment and resulting ill will created by something like New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. It will be unavailing to the many victims of horrifying police brutality who are not shot (Eric Garner, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Marlene Pinnock, etc.), and to the many more who suffer lesser indignities daily. As Greg Howard points out, “The worst part of outfitting our police officers as soldiers has been psychological. Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.” Perhaps a policy that rewards officers financially for keeping their weapons holstered will send a countervailing message: that they are, first and foremost, keepers of the peace, and that we, as a society, will reward not simply those with the most arrests, but those who show they can protect and serve all of us without hurting or killing some of us.


Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Photo: Jason Allen


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