The end of "Get Tough on Crime"?: Reviewing “Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration”
“Prison Song” by System of a Down is still one of my favorite jams (for multiple reasons) that I listen to know and then. Aside from having an awesome chorus riff, it has some interesting lyrics. Here is a sample:
They're trying to build a prison…
Following the rights movement
You clamped on with your iron fists
Drugs became conveniently
Available for all the kids…
They're trying to build a prison
(for you and me to live in)…
Another prison system
(for you and me)…
Minor drug offenders fill your prisons you don't even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich…
All research and successful drug policy show that treatment should be increased
And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences…
They're trying to build a prison
(for you and me to live in)…
Another prison system
(for you and me)…
(What a great jam). This song came out in 2001 (my first year in college [go Lobos!]) and rhythmically summarizes the very real concerns about the United States’ experiment with mass incarceration. However, at that time, the political landscape regarding mass incarceration was about to change dramatically.
That is the central topic of a new book, “Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration”, by David Dagan and Steven Teles. They provide a fascinating account of why being “tough on crime” now seems like an ideological position relegated to the dustbin of history (for now [more on that below]). Dagan and Teles seek to explain why and how Conservatives have been changing their mind about the criminal justice system for the last 15 years. No longer are Conservatives and Republican politicians defined by a “tough on crime” mentality that dominated for nearly 50 years (beginning with Goldwater’s campaign in 1960). Rather, Conservative ideology has adapted to be critical of mass incarceration. What makes Dagan and Teles’ book intellectually stimulating is that they present a fairly interesting problem: The evidence about the effectiveness of mass incarceration has not changed substantially (sociologists have long held that this was going to be problematic), but Conservatives have not started to strongly back criminal justice reform. Why the change? A simple answer is that it is the economy (stupid). But this would be a situation in which Conservative ideology remaining stable, with political behavior reflecting a more pragmatic, response to budgetary restrictions imposed by the Great Recession. Dagan and Teles provide a more interesting explanation (and more empirically accurate), one that hinges on a fundamental shift in the framing of crime control among Conservatives.
So what happened? They argue that what has changed is the perception that it is appropriate for someone with a Conservative identity to be critical of the criminal justice system. Being “tough on crime” reflected Conservative commitments to law and order and the criminal justice system was an appropriate use of government power to protect the safety of citizens. From this standpoint then, it was ideologically inconsistent to be critical of mass incarceration (bleeding heart conservatives?). Despite mounting evidence that mass incarceration was problematic, it was impossible for Conservative Republicans to not be “tough on crime”. But things have changed. Perceptions have changed.
How did this perceptual change occur? They argue that there are two main sources of influence to examine.
First, structural variables, or aspects of the political atmosphere, changed in a way that made it acceptable for Conservatives to shift from the “tough on crime” framing that had been so dominate. Dagan and Teles identify three key aspects of change that influenced this process. First, Democrats mimicked the behavior of Republicans (i.e. get to the right of your opponent on crime control) making crime control less of a wedge issue and netting less electoral value. Second, the great crime decline of the 1990’s made Americans less concerned about crime as an issue that government should address (the concern over law and order of the 1960s had been a key factor making “tough on crime” a viable electoral issue initially). Third, Republicans shifted their attention toward terrorism as a political issue following the September 11th attacks. These structural changes provided a political environment where it no longer made sense to be tough on crime.
As, Dagan and Teles highlight, and occurring somewhat as a consequence of these structural changes, the Tea Party movement was another important factor that altered Conservatives’ views on the criminal justice system and had two important consequences. One, it brought a group of politicians into office who did not have a prior record of being “tough on crime”, thereby not creating the potential for a flip-flop on the issue. These individuals were free to endorse reforms in the criminal justice system and not incur the political consequences that prior representatives have faced. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Tea Party movement reflected a growing sentiment among Conservatives of anti-statism. This is a fascinating insight and key change the authors identity. During the “tough on crime” era, Conservatives, though critical of government for inefficiency and excess, had largely excluded crime control institutions from this critique. Being “tough on crime” was about protecting public safety and the usual performance based approach to government organizations was not applicable (it conflicted with the ideological position). But this changed in the 2000s as Conservative rhetoric reframed the discussion of prisons (discussed below). In speaking about these new Conservatives, Dagan and Teles note: “Not raised in the crucible of the crime wars, they were open to seeing prisons as just another part of big government—an armed welfare state” (p. 40).
But, the shift among Conservatives in their approach to crime control required more than changes in the viability of crime control as an electoral issue. There were genuine changes from key political figures that helped reframe the way Conservatives saw prisons. This is the key part of Dagan and Teles’ argument, and the piece that takes up most of their book. Specifically, they argue that, in addition to structural features, a key mechanism that transformed Conservatives’ views was a process of identity vouching whereby a trusted messenger presents information that is contradictory to existing views in a way that is consistent with underlying principles. For example, whereas much of the concern over mass incarceration was framed as an issue of justice (e.g. the disproportionate impact on minorities), Conservative identity vouchers restructured criticism to focus on performance. Prisons were reframed as the personification of excessive government: a bloated bureaucracy that does not function probably, thereby making us worse off and undermining individual rights. This view, rather than the image of prisons being tools of elites to maintain social control, was more consistent with Conservative principles of preserving rights and limited government. And, in fact, made you a better Conservative if you were critical of mass incarceration. This is the key insight that Dagan and Teles emphasize. Though I have simplified the discussion, they go into great detail about the individuals and organizations that made this shift occur. Much of the book is dedicated to focusing on how these identity vouchers drew on personal resources to package criminal justice reform in a way that was palatable for senior Republican party members and, as a consequence, to transform Conservatives’ view of prisons.
One thing that stood out was the concern that Dagan and Teles raise about how the criminal justice reform movement could stall. In particular, they emphasize that increases in crime may bring back the “law and order” perspective that created the “tough on crime” agenda. I found this particularly insightful given the recent shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. While it remains to be seen, such events may spark fears about the breakdown of law and order and may provide a narrative that is similar to the concerns raised in the 1960s. For example, the theme for the first night of the Republican National Convention is “Make American Safe Again”. This sort of rhetoric would resonate with the country as concern about crime and violence has increased over the last two years, according to Gallup. However, this time may be different. As Dagan and Teles emphasize, the change among Conservatives has been to be open to evidence-based practices. During the “tough on crime” era, research was dismissed because it was not consistent with the narrative (and therefore lacked legitimacy). If the changes to Conservatives that Dagan and Teles describe are real, and can be sustained, then hopefully there will be a willingness to listen to researchers about how we make criminal justice organizations better. A willingness that was absent during the “get tough” era.
In a previous post, I raised the question of whether body-cams should be adopted by all police departments. I suggested that, although a typical evening newscast would lead you to believe that police abuse of authority is a national crisis, what is often overlooked, is the fact that the majority of Americans express a great deal of respect for the police. Gallup polling has consistently shown rates at 60% or above since 1992. That is nearly a quarter of a century in which a sizable majority respects the legitimacy of authority exerted by police. Moreover, the US fairs well with other wealthy countries which consistently show that prosperity and effective policing go hand in hand. Yet, these same studies indicate that lack of confidence in the police is concentrated among disadvantaged groups, and not just in the United States. What this boils down to is the simple fact that concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic. In other words, the diffusion of negative information or beliefs about the police is selective.
In this post, I want to revisit this idea in light of a new paper in the American Sociological Review by Henrich R. Greve, Ji-Yub (Jay) Kim, and Daphne Teh entitled “Ripples of Fear: The Diffusion of a Bank Panic”. Greve and his colleagues argue that negative information (e.g. protests against Wal-Mart) is selective in that it only spreads to some organizations and not others. Not all Wal-Mart stores experience protests, why? They emphasize that the academic literature examining selective diffusion has mainly focused on organizations as key players (i.e. active agents) in this process. In contrast to the adoption of innovations that may benefit an organization, negative or adverse reactions (negative information) spreads in a different way because the organization is not trying to spread it. Wal-Mart does not have an incentive to encourage protests. Diffusion of information is a selective process that occurs, but the organizations are passive agents. In contrast to positive information (or something that can spread that helps the organization), there is an external agent that is responsible for the diffusion (what they call external stakeholders). The question then is, if the organization itself not responsible for spreading negative information, how do external agents create selective diffusion paths? Why some Wal-Marts and not others? They propose a model whereby information about an organization is first judged by an external agent to be negative. Then, stigma spreads to other organizations through categorical judgment. That is, the external agent determines whether a separate organization is sufficiently similar to the organization for which information has been deemed negative to place it within the same category. Greve and colleagues argue that this determination occurs due to organizational similarity, community similarity, and network proximity. As this mechanism operates, selective diffusion paths are created.
So what does this have to do with perceptions of the police? A key part of their argument is that external agents will judge an organization as negative if the community in which that organization exists is similar to the community in which an already stigmatized organization is itself embedded. They develop this position by extending well-known issues concerning attribution bias and in-group/out-group preferences. As they argue: “These preferences influence judgements, because individuals with out-group bias tend to ascribe the cause of a negative event in another community to its members if they have very different…characteristics. Stakeholders often assume that a negative event occurring in a dissimilar community will be less likely to happen in their own community” (p. 401). This provides a plausible mechanism why the concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic. The marked racial and socioeconomic differences across communities may create a situation in which external agents do not categorize negative information about a police department (e.g. accusations of excessive force) in another community to be applicable to their own local police department. Here, individuals may attribute blame to the individuals within those communities. In contrast, similar communities may perceive such events to be more likely to occur in their community. Since the cause is less likely to be attributed to internal characteristics (due to similarity), blame is more likely to be attributed to the organization. This is the process of selective diffusion. As mentioned, such a mechanism could generate an empirical trace that is consistent with the Gallup polling mentioned above.
A rough metric for how much I enjoy a book is a) the frequency with which I bring it up in conversations and b) suggest it be read (note that these are not independent events). I suggested Mariana Mazzucato’s “The Entrepreneurial State...” to at least three people this past week and brought it up in several conversations in which it was not even relevant. In “The Entrepreneurial State...”, Mazzucato presents a fascinating position regarding the role of government in funding technological innovation. If you want a simple way to defend the argument that government should invest lots of money in research, then this is a great read (which is actually free! at here). If you are not of this persuasion, you should definitely read this book as you may be surprised by what it has to offer (since it is free here you will only sink opportunity costs!).
Mazzucato’s basic argument is that technological innovations require a party that is willing to make extraordinary investments in research for which the returns are uncertain (i.e. the probability of return is not quantifiable). This party must be the state. That is, the state must be entrepreneurial: “one able to take risks and create a highly networked system of actors that harness the best of the private sector for the national good over a medium- to long-term time horizon” (p. 21) (now the title of the book should make more sense). Therefore, economic growth is tightly coupled with investments in research and coordinating efforts by the state.
How does she get to this position? First, Mazzucato critiques the prevailing view (i.e. the market failure perspective), which holds that the role of the state is to correct market “imperfections”. That is, situations where firms do not invest because the returns may be difficult to appropriate (e.g. a public good available to other competing firms [e.g. a lighthouse]) or because the risks are too substantial for any single firm to bear. In reviewing many technological innovations (including the Internet and all of Apple’s iOS devices), Mazzucato shows that the state has been far more likely to bear the risks of developing technology than the companies that have developed commercial value from such technology. Using Apple as an example (Chapter 5), she shows that, rather than investing in research and developing the technologies underlying the iOS devices (i.e. iPod, iPhone, iPad), Apple purchased existing patents from the state, thereby integrating complex technologies into user-friendly devices. Many of these technologies were driven by research funded through defense department contracts (e.g. DARPA) and coordination of firms and universities through consortia (e.g. SEMATECH). It is in this sense that the state is entrepreneurial: investing in high risk research and service a coordinating role. As a result, Mazzucato argues that the state doesn’t “fix” markets it creates them. In other words, investment in technological innovation by the state creates particular conditions for competitive markets to emerge. This is because state investment has been the primary engine behind “general purpose technologies,” which are innovations that cause economy-wide growth in a variety of economic sectors.
A key feature of Mazzucato argument is the state must be entrepreneurial because of the inability (or unwillingness) of private firms to convert uncertainty (i.e. an unquantifiable outcome) into risk (i.e. a probability of success or failure). For example, if you were playing craps, you would know the risk of a 7 or 11 on a come-out roll. But, if you have never played craps and knew nothing about the die, you could not attribute a probability to what will happen, so you are uncertain of the outcome. As such, you would be better off asking someone or watching several trials to develop information that will be beneficial. Mazzucato argues that this is the position of private firms: they are uncertain about the returns on new technology, so it is better to invest in developing technologies for which there are quantifiable returns. In my analogy, watching others play craps or asking them about the game would be like waiting for the state to conduct basic and applied research to reveal the commercial viability of a technology (i.e. risk). It is In this way the state is a necessary part of the system of technological innovations.
So why did I bring the book up in so many conversations? (if the above discussion didn’t do it for you hopefully this will) Mazzucato argues there has been a problematic trend toward a “socialization of risk, but a privatization of rewards” (p. 27) in developing countries (most particularly the US and Great Britain). Although the largest investment costs of technology are made by the taxpayer, through state funding agencies and contracts, the rewards of commercialized technology are reaped by private firms. Mazzucato appropriately emphasizes that the majority of taxpayers simply are unaware of how their taxes foster innovation and economic growth. As she illustrates, the usual argument (that share-holders in private firms bear all the risk) is only half the story and ignores the fact that successful technologies almost always involve some subsidy by taxpayers. She argues that, since an entrepreneurial state is required for economic growth and maintaining leadership in innovation, redistribution of returns must be made such that funds continue to flow back into the state. However, this is difficult to accomplish since private firms have an incentive to maintain minimal investments in basic research and development and direct capital to technologies that are already developed (which she refers to as the “risk-reward nexus” and a peer-reviewed discussion of the argument is available here).
The reason I liked this book is because it presents an argument in which people who usually disagree on an ideological level about the role of government should probably agree. This is not a debate about whether the state should “meddle in the market”. It is an illustration of how the state is the only organizational form that can bear the uncertainty of creating technological innovations. As such, we should maintain a keen eye when it comes to discussions about reducing the investments of the state in research.
This is a review of “Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve” by Ian Morris. The scope of this book is about as big as it gets as Morris is seeking to explain the evolution of values across all of human history. As the introduction states: “Its scope and erudition are astonishing” (p. xii); I couldn’t agree more (and I had to look up what erudition meant). Overall, I found the book very interesting and a quick read. In addition to his theory, Morris includes critiques by three authors, providing an interesting debate about his core ideas. Interested in a grand theory about values, social organization, and cultural evolution (and have an few hours to spare)? If so, I would recommend this book.
What the book is about
The basic thesis Morris puts forth is that as energy capture becomes progressively more efficient, different forms of social organization emerge, creating particular human values. The model is quite simple: energy capture causes social organization which causes values. As he states: “When we look at the entire planet across the last twenty thousand years, …we see three broadly successive systems of human values. Each is associated with a particular way of capturing energy from the world around us” (p.4). The three forms of “energy capture” he identifies are: foraging (i.e. hunter/gatherer), farming (i.e. the domestication of plants and animals), and fossil-fuel (i.e. discovery of heat created through burning coal and the use of heat for motion). As a consequence of different forms of energy capture, there are different values: foraging values (value equality over hierarchy, tolerant of violence), farming values (value hierarchy over equality, less tolerant of violence), and fossil-fuel values (value equality over hierarchy, intolerant of violence). These are ideal-types in the sense that they are conceptual devices that are never empirically observed exactly as described, but help organize empirical phenomena (i.e. qualitatively distinct classes). Morris argues that the time periods for foraging, farming, and fossil-fuels are 20,000 BC to 8,000 BC, 8,000 BC to AD 1000, and AD 1000-present, respectively.
Energy, social organization, and values
The mediating variable in the model put forth by Morris is social organization, and much of the book is dedicated to showing how particular forms of social organization are influenced by energy capture and how this leads to particular values. Under foraging energy capture, there is two key features: high mobility and small groups. Since the food that is gathered through foraging produces little energy, individuals have little else they can do by scrounge for food and hunt. High mobility leads to little to no accumulation of wealth, which leads to no property to pass on to kin. Small groups do not generate a division of labor, impairing role development and, as a consequence, there are no hierarchies. In both cases then, egalitarianism is valued because there are no inequalities to be reinforced through property accumulation. However, because there are no hierarchies, violence is common as a means for maintaining the status quo. Citing fascinating archeological research on the study of fatal trauma in skeletons, Morris shows that violence was shockingly high in foraging societies (about 1 in 10 die violently). As Morris points out, due to the nature of energy capture institutions such as the family are inefficient and not useful: “The shallowness of gender hierarchies and the weakness of martial ties, like the shallowness and weakness of economic and political hierarchies, seems to be a direct consequence of the nature of foraging as a method of energy extraction” (p. 40).
Under farming energy capture, domestication of plants and animals produced substantially more energy than foraging. As a consequence, humans were able to settle (i.e. move around less) and increase social density. Morris points to three major changes in the social organization under farming that lead to a different perspective on hierarchy and violence. First, there was a sexual division of labor where males worked in the fields and females spent more time in the home. Morris argues that the heightened requirements of physical strength for farming provided a competitive advantage to male labor: “as population grew, making land scarcer relative to labor, people worked it more intensively, squeezing more output from each acre through…heavy labor…The further that a society went in this direction, the more men’s upper body strength became a plus in farmwork” (p. 59). The increasing physical demands incentivized dividing labor between males and females. Further, heightened fertility among females meant that they spent more time indoors. The presence of a division of labor helped facilitate the valuation of hierarchy as an acceptable form of organization. Second, the accumulation of property, increasing labor specialization, and an increasingly complex division of labor (due to between-family competition) instilled values that supported hierarchy (through increasing wealth inequality).
This sets up the argument for why farmers were more accepting of violence than foragers. First, Morris argues that, due to market failure, forced labor emerged as an accepted form of production: “low output per premodern farmhand meant that the marginal product of labor was often too small to make wages attractive to people who had any alternative means of supporting themselves” (p. 63-64). This lead to forced labor as a means of mobilizing work beyond just kin: “Using violence to depress the costs of labor to the point that its marginal product became positive for employers made slavery and serfdom the obvious answers…Farming societies seem to have shifted toward forced labor because they had to” (p. 64). Second, the state, or organized monopolization of force, emerges as a collective action problem for increasing social density (because people are increasing energy capture). This instilled the belief that the use of force by divine rulers was legitimate.
Finally, Morris discusses the development of fossil-fuel energy capture and the consequences for social organization and values. The invention of steam power (through the discovery of burning coal for heat and using heat for motion) led to increasing productivity of humans. As a consequence, wages increased and prices dropped, which incentivized individuals to move away from farming toward more specialized labor (in urban settings). Interestingly, Morris points out that the increase of wage labor made forced labor less attractive (a value shift as a consequence of social organization change): “higher wages made forced labor less necessary, …[and] forced labor increasingly struck business interests as an obstacle to growth” (p. 102). Further, the division of labor for males and females was dismantled for two reasons. First, productivity was less related to physical strength, reducing the competitive advantage seen during the farming period. Second, the fundamental shift from “low wage-high mortality-high fertility” to “high wage-low mortality-low fertility” increased time available to females. As Morris states: “before the coming of fossil fuels, the average woman had to spend most of her adult life bearing and rearing children, but once that necessity was removed, parents increasingly preferred investing more heavily in feeding and educating smaller families to breeding as much as possible” (p. 103). While Morris never clearly links changes in social organization to the intolerance of violence in fossil-fuel society, he does emphasize that “the fossil-fuel twentieth century was ten times safer than the world of foragers, and two or three times safer than that of farmers” and that while “violence has not gone away, …the world has never been so safe” (p. 118-119). Thus, the intolerance of violence seems to be the consequence of greater equality and the development of human rights.
It is functionalism, but good functionalism
To recap, the basic model Morris puts forth is: energy capture determines size and density of society which creates a functional social organization which creates functional values. I have included the term “functional” here to emphasize that the argument Morris makes is “functional” in that the existence of some value is explained by the fact that is exists. As Morris states: “the competitive process of cultural evolution shoves us towards whatever values work best at a particular stage of energy capture” (p. 14). Normally, functional analysis is fallacious reasoning because it affirms the consequent (i.e. if A then B, B therefore A) by stating that a particular social organization or set of values exist, therefore they must be functional. For example, Kingsley Davis (1939) argued that one of the reasons prostitution exists is to help strengthen the family by providing a market for residual desires not satisfied by the spouse. The problem with the logic here is that, since something exists, it must be functional, therefore you simply have to identify the function (rather than an alternative reasoning which my point to weak institutions, for example). However, the approach Morris takes is different in two ways. First, he identifies a mechanism that produces functional values. That is, a particular form of energy capture produces the “ideas it needs” (eerily structural functionalist language) because energy capture influences social organization, which then creates values that will support it. Second, he provides an astonishing amount of empirical support for each link in the model. By starting from the ultimate cause (form of energy capture), he avoids much of the problems confronted by functional analysis.
As I said above, if you are interested in a grand theory about values, social organization, and cultural evolution (and have an few hours to spare), I would recommend this book.
The office water cooler heard a lot of concern regarding the police in America lately. A typical evening newscast would lead you to believe that police abuse of authority is a national crisis sparking public interest in accountability and legitimacy over the last two years. What is often overlooked, however, is that the majority of Americans express a great deal of respect for the police. Gallup polling has consistently shown rates at 60% or above since 1992. That is nearly a quarter of a century in which a sizable majority respects the legitimacy of authority exerted by police. Moreover, the US fairs well with other wealthy countries which consistently show that prosperity and effective policing go hand in hand. Yet, these same studies indicate that lack of confidence in the police is concentrated among disadvantaged groups, and not just in the United States. What this boils down to is the simple fact that concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic.
The media and federal government would lead you to believe otherwise. As we enter the brave new world of recorded interactions between the citizenry and police, policymakers and communities have identified body-worn cameras as a device capable of repairing the legitimacy of police in American communities. President Obama recently announced the “Body Worn Camera Partnership Program” which provides funding to departments to purchase body worn cameras. The President emphasized that such actions are necessary to alleviate the “simmering distrust” of the police as agents of social control in many communities.
But is on-officer video technology needed everywhere? The widespread support for body cams follows partly from the perception that body cameras are a necessary feature of legitimate authority. This suggests that departments which do not adopt cameras will be questioned. “If you don’t have cameras, what are you trying to hide?” Such logic rests on the assumption that body cameras will resolve issues of legitimacy and that all departments are struggling with the same problems. But this is simply not the case, as the crisis of legitimacy is a localized one: not all police departments suffer from such concerns. Departments adopt the cameras to solve existing organizational goals, in this case, transparency. But, not all departments are facing this as an organizational challenge. Most departments in most cities have high regard by citizens. However, as large departments adopt cameras to address existing organizational challenges, other departments will mimic those larger agencies to gain legitimacy, whether they need to or not. This is a basic problem of normative isomorphism, where organizations mimic other organizations to gain legitimacy.
So what? The problem is that cameras are not cheap, and these resources may be better spent elsewhere within the department or the in the city at large. As the famous economist Milton Freedman has been (incorrectly) credited with saying: there is “no free lunch,” meaning that any evaluation of a program should consider, not just the cost of the program, but the costs of not spending the money on other programs. In addition to the cost of body cameras themselves, there are the far larger costs of video storage (if you pay a monthly fee for cloud or local backup of your own media you know what I mean), time for supervisors to audit and review files (how many of you actually clean out old media you don’t need in your computer?), back-end retrieval and video tagging software, and redaction. Equipping every officer with a camera that is on at all citizen contacts is ideal if you own stock in Taser or electronic storage, but may not be best for smaller departments with limited resources. Those costs may be better spent by the department or even on other public services (e.g. schools, roads, health).
Technological innovations, however well-meant, have non-pecuniary costs as well. Requiring police to turn on video cameras whenever they interact with citizens will increase the likelihood of capturing rare use-of-force events, but the tradeoff is that they can mechanize natural human interactions that are the cornerstone of building trusting relationships and cultural sensitivity. In the wake of White House’s recent announcement to limit police use of military equipment, it is important to acknowledge that cameras attached to police officer’s heads and used in citizen’s private homes can have a similar dehumanizing effect on citizens and officers, and the way their social transactions unfold. Is it not conceivable that on-officer video will be adopted to solve problems that disproportionately impact minority communities, but their deployment may in the long run result in the greatest costs to those communities they’re intended to benefit?
At the heart of the issue of on-officer video technology is the contradictory impact that it can have on actual police accountability on the one hand, and public perceptions of police accountability on the other hand. Legitimacy is eroded when people don’t trust the police and when they believe police don’t treat them fairly and respectfully. Ironically, a technology that is designed to create greater accountability for individual officers may reduce the legitimacy of policing as an institution in the eyes of the American public.
Justin Ready and I written two articles about police use of body cams for Slate. If you are interested, check them out:
Three Myths about Police Body Cams: Filming interactions between law enforcement and citizens might not stop the next Ferguson from happening
A Tale of Two Cities: Whether body cams succeed in increasing police transparency depends entirely on training and policies
I just finished reading Robert Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography” and it was awesome! It is long, but provides an interesting overview of how geographers think about geopolitics and history. Kaplan discusses a variety of arguments for why geography matters, but the basic position is that geography is critical for understanding tensions between nations throughout history and in the present. I would characterize the book as emphasizing a soft version of geographic determinism: geography is not destiny, but it damn sure matters! As you would expect, Kaplan emphasizes why geography is an important between-state or between-area variable. But, perhaps more interestingly, he discusses the permanence of geography in specific areas and the consequences for state-building. Basically, how the history of states is defined by repeated struggles with geography.
One of the more interesting topics (I thought), was a critique of American foreign policy in Afghanistan as a distraction from the real concern: a border dispute with Mexico. He begins this discussion by emphasizing scales of time, basically describing short-term and long-term consequences of particular actions by states. He argues (as have others) that the U.S. involvement in these areas is shortsighted because America does not have a great deal to gain from developing functioning institutions in this area. The countries that will gain the most are those that are contiguous and starting to make investments in Afghanistan. In particular, he argues that China has the most to gain, as it has been devoting resources to developing an infrastructure in Afghanistan (mostly roads apparently). Rather than focusing attention in countries that are not geographic threats, U.S. foreign policy should focus on dealing with a coming crisis with a contiguous geographic region: Central America.
The contiguous border aspect is central to Kaplan’s critique. He argues that the relatively isolationist policy of America (historically European countries have not had this option), is predominately a function of our geography: there is an ocean between the U.S. and the other, densely populated continents. Although the U.S. shares a contiguous border with Canada, the majority of the population lives on that border as there is little population development in the northern areas of Canada. This is fundamentally different than the border shared with Mexico. Kaplan argues that because Central America has a rapidly expanding population, there will be an extreme sovereignty dispute in the southwest over the next century.
An interesting part of Kaplan’s argument is that, despite the inclination to treat the new wave of immigration as similar to immigration in the past, the immigration of Mexican and Central Americans is not comparable to the immigration of Europeans for two reasons. First, there is a natural barrier between Europe and North America (i.e. the Atlantic Ocean). This natural barrier made it much easier to handle flows of populations because it was an uninhabitable physical space, preventing the development of contiguous populations. In other words, this is a barrier that is real (i.e. it exists due to geography). In contrast, there is no geographic barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. Rather, it is an artificial/political barrier that is the consequence of historical contingencies. As Kaplan emphasizes throughout the book, the majority of world conflicts occur when there are borders without geographies (he spends a great deal of time explaining why Germany and Russia have long struggled with this issue). The second difference is that Mexican immigrations have greater solidarity. Although European immigrations developed enclaves in Northeastern and Western cities, these were relatively small. In addition, there was no collective identity of "European". Rather, there were strong ethnic conflicts based on the geographic regions of origin. Kaplan argues that, in contrast, there is a collective identity among immigrations from Mexico which is a consequence of geography. The ability to maintain social ties across the border facilitates the diffusion of capital and other resources between family members. This was very different from the disruption of social ties that occurred for European immigrants. Basically, immigration of Europeans and the immigration of Central Americans are not comparable due to a single difference: geography.
Overall, I found the book very refreshing. My training in sociology primarily focuses on the role of institutions in explaining the successes or failures of states. Why did dynasties in China fail? Because of bureaucracy and the lack of development of market capitalism. This is an argument about institutions. Kaplan’s book brings a different perspective, emphasizing that the geography of states is central to foreign policy and development.
This post describes some ideas that have developed while working on a project with Justin Ready. We have been examining data collected from police officers regarding their attitudes toward and use of on-officer cameras. In what follows, I examine the principal agent problem with respect to the public and social control organizations, such as the police.
A principal agent relation is simply a form of exchange where a principal seeks to have some task performed by an agent. Put simply, I want you to do something, so I pay you to do it. For example, a principal needs the oil changed in his car, but does not know how to perform this task. Rather than fumble around and try to accomplish the task through trial-and-error, the principal can simply pay a mechanic (agent) to do it for him. Both are now better off than before the exchange.
The principal agent problem occurs when the market mechanism does not function properly due to asymmetric information. Let's return to the oil-change example. Since the principal does not know how to change the oil in his car, the mechanic (agent) could simply take the money and not do any work. The principal's lack of information about whether an oil change has been performed is a problem of asymmetric information. The agent knows if the task has been performed, but the principal does not. As a consequence, the principal cannot make the agent account for his actions. Under these conditions (i.e. market friction), a rational principal would not engage in exchange. The fact that many people still exchange under these conditions points to the importance of trust as a mechanism for greasing the wheels to reduce frictions (but this is a separate issue of which the current discussion does not pursue further). In principal agent relations that have minimal transaction difficulties, the principal can hold the agent accountable. In other words, accountability concerns the ability of a principal to determine whether the agent has done what is expected of him.
What does this have to do with the public and the police?
If we think of a principal as a collective interest (e.g. the public), then we can apply this same form of interaction to exchanges between the public and formal organizations of social control. This is exactly what Thomas Hobbes did nearly four centuries ago who argued that, to ensure public safety, the commonwealth establishes a formal entity of social control, in exchange for freedom and capital. In other words, the public tasks an organization with ensuring social control. Though Hobbes emphasized that only a despotic and terrifying organization could accomplish the task (a Leviathan), formal organizations of social control in the U.S. are much less powerful and more democratic then the institution Hobbes envisioned.
With this in mind, we can return to our original problem of how a principal holds an agent to account for his actions. In the case of policing organizations, a primary concern is the manner in which interactions with the public are conducted. Research indicates that most individuals have little knowledge of what actually occurs during police initiated contact. Thus, there is a lack of symmetry between the public regarding police conduct during such interactions (i.e. lack of knowledge about task performance). Despite such information asymmetry, the prevalence of formal social control organizations indicates that trust is an important device for influencing perceptions of the police among the public.
Recently, however, information symmetry between the public and the police has fundamentally changed. The information revolution and the diffusion of technological innovations (e.g. cell-phones) has altered the ability for individuals to create, distribute, and access information. Of greatest relevance here, is the spread of third party recordings of police initiated contact ("Don't taze me bro!" comes immediately to mind). This shift in the public's ability to access information about police initiated contact is directly relevant to the principal agent problem previously described.
The availability of this information changes the relationship such that the public is in a better position to hold the police more accountable with respect to their behavior. The problem with this change is the assumption that the newly available information is accurate. That is, if third party recordings reduce information asymmetry, then the validity and representativeness of the recorded content is crucial for making decisions about police accountability. The diffusion of unrepresentative information about police conduct represents an organizational dilemma for police departments. That is, information available to a principal that does not accurately reflect the agent's task performance may create friction in the relation. In this case, unrepresentative information may incorrectly undermine police legitimacy among the public. As many scholars have recognized, transparency in the organization is one means of demonstrating accountability. With respect to policing organizations, on-officer cameras represent a technological innovation which can facilitate adaptation to this dilemma and foster transparency in the organization.
We are still working on this issue with the data we are examining. When we are ready to release findings on our analysis I will be sure to post them here.