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


17 Comments / Post A Comment

I like the way you think, Michtom. Here’s how I think: TAKE THEIR DAMN GUNS AWAY. As far as I’m concerned, the police have lost their lethal-weapon privileges. Serve and protect us like the British and Danish cops do and then eventually maybe figure out some way to earn back our trust.

@Ester Bloom Respectfully disagree.

@Ester Bloom : Considering how many shootings are justified by “but he was going after my gun!”, I’m OK with this.

I mean, if police are so concerned about the apparent epidemic of people charging at them and trying to grab their guns, perhaps they should figure out some place they can put their guns where that won’t be a problem.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

@Ester Bloom Danish police do carry standard issue handguns (I am a Denmark nerd, not just trying to show you up). However, they don’t tend to shoot people. We should figure out why and import that.

@LookUponMyWorks They do now? I studied abroad there 10+ years ago and took a Criminal Justice class where we got to tour prisons and meet cops; back then, they didn’t carry guns. Even the prison guards didn’t. It was amazing.

nnlsbin (#5,447)

@Ester Bloom I think it would be difficult to argue taking away guns from cops when everyday people can have them and carry them?

Note-im Australian so may be wrong about Americans being able to carry guns (this is a theory based purely on what I see on tv and movies and may be very very very wrong)

Wendy T (#7,420)

“police officers, like people generally, are mostly good and kind”


Thursty (#7,023)

@Wendy T Seconded. I think that many people are drawn toward the profession for the ability to use force.

@Wendy T @Thursty It’s hard to make generalizations like this, one way or the other, but my sense is that most cops really do mean well (although surely there are a few drawn to the job for bad reasons), but that there is something inherent in the training, culture, and conditions of the work that creates a toxic atmosphere.

Miss_B (#7,053)

@Josh Michtom@facebook I suspect that you have the privilege to give most cops the benefit of the doubt (in thinking that they mostly mean well and are sweethearts) because you are part of the sector of society that isn’t particularly oppressed (being white and visibly un-poor and educated and such). Okay, obviously all cops aren’t evil murderous racist fascist monsters. But…I think that kind of job — and that kind of power — definitely attracts a certain kind of personality, and I don’t think that personality is necessarily the warm-hearted helper sort you think. Or, not the majority of the time, anyway. Maybe half and half at best. I mean, I am a white woman who also has a bunch of punches in the Privilege Card, but if I were raped, say, I don’t feel terribly confident that the majority of police officers/detectives/whoever would be overwhelmingly looking out for my best interests if I went to the police for help. For instance.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

Wait, so I’m supposed to bank my life on my potential murderer doing–in a flash–the mental math that shows not killing me might let him Throw More Money At His Problems this month?! lolNOPE

You have your solution, and in the spirit of Splurges That Are Totally Worth It, I have mine: http://qmuniforms.com/gh-body-armor-pro-vest-level-3a-navy

@DebtOrAlive Of course you shouldn’t bank your life on it! The terrible thing is that you have to bank your life on anything related to incentivizing basic humane behavior among police. Like I say, it’s emphatically a band-aid solution because I don’t know how to undo society-wide classism, racism, and fetishaztion of violence. Also, because the law is cruel and ironic, many jurisdictions make it a crime for civilians to own bullet-proof vests.

moreadventurous (#4,956)

I’ve been looking forward to your post on this, Josh. (We knew it was coming!) I really like this idea of using incentives. I could see officers arguing that this promotes “laziness” though. Another article I read–I can’t remember which at this point–suggested filling of reports for every use of weaponry, including removing the gun from the holster and pointing it directly at a person. You way avoids some bureaucratic headaches.

I don’t think we can realistically argue for taking away of law enforcement’s guns, but the use of military grade gear was most certainly un-called for and not something I believe every county police squad should have access to. That’s another major issue that needs to be addressed.

maxwelljd (#7,340)

Police officer deaths are rare as you note. But so are incidents where officers actually shoot their guns. So rare that I suspect this small economic incentive wouldn’t make a difference.

In 2012 there were 35,000 NYC cops but only 105 incidents where an officer discharged their weapon. Twenty four of those were animal attacks and nine were suicide/attempted suicide.

@maxwelljd That is a good point. A real journalist would have asked a behavioralist her opinion on whether this kind of incentive would have any effect on what is a severe manifestation (shooting death) that occurs at the margins of a much broader problem (officers’ disregard for civilians, esp. those who are people of color). Maybe the bigger question that should come from this proposal is this: given that police brutality stems from a pervasive perception in police departments that poor, non-white civilians are generally hostile and less deserving of respect, which probably stems from a broader racial and socioeconomic divide in society, what concrete, institutional steps can be taken to reform police behavior?

j a y (#3,935)

Unfortunately power corrupts and attracts the corruptible. And police have a lot of power.

I feel like it is mandatory for the police force to be representative of the community, and I don’t care if quotas and competence have to be imposed/sacrificed to do it. Having a predominantly white police force in a black community is bound to lead to us-vs-them.

Half should be women, some should be queer, racial minorities in proportion to the population. Partner them up diversely and spend time with each partner’s community.

tammytahreem (#7,474)


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