Cops are mostly useless

Here’s an observation that you might find counter-intuitive, unless you recognize that the police carry a cost in inherent destructiveness: more police doesn’t work.

In 2016, a group of criminologists conducted a systematic review, opens new tab of 62 earlier studies of police force size and crime between 1971 and 2013. They concluded that 40 years of studies consistently show that “the overall effect size for police force size on crime is negative, small, and not statistically significant.”
“This line of research has exhausted its utility,” the authors wrote. “Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police.”
Decades of data similarly shows that police don’t solve much serious and violent crime – the safety issues that most concern everyday people.
Over the past decade, “consistently less than half of all violent crime and less than twenty-five percent of all property crime were cleared,” William Laufer and Robert Hughes wrote in a 2021 law review article, opens new tab. Laufer and Hughes are professors in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department.
Police “have never successfully solved crimes with any regularity, as arrest and clearance rates are consistently low throughout history,” and police have never solved even a bare majority of serious crimes, University of Utah college of law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman wrote in another 2021 law review article, opens new tab, including murder, rape, burglary and robbery.
Existing research also affirms the findings in the recent report on police work in California.

I once had a nice encounter with the local sheriff’s department when a visitor accidentally locked their keys in their car — they came right over and used their collection of simple tools to break into the car, and the officer was quite nice. He didn’t need to use his gun. I’m all for a disarmed police force, also one that doesn’t use an armored personnel carrier or tank.


  1. says

    Now I’ve got something pretty distinctive I can point to.

    …Of course, that assumes the person I argue with gives a flip about data and evidence.

  2. numerobis says

    The study is rather more focused than your overall conclusion: it says that traffic stops are (a) the bulk of the budget and (b) mostly harmful. So, they surmise, you could slash the police budget by using other methods for traffic enforcement, and change nothing about police activities for investigating crimes.

    Seems pretty compelling to me. I guess that’s why we have “meter maids” as opposed to when I was growing up the police were in charge of writing parking tickets.

  3. Matt G says

    I was binging on Midsomer Murders. No weapons, except in certain circumstances. There were several times when I wished they did, however

  4. drew says

    Suspiciously missing from the article (which was about cops policing traffic instead of “solving crimes”) were their motivations. Traffic tickets are money for them. So is seized property.

  5. jack lecou says

    “More police doesn’t work” is certainly true if you make the assumption that police are supposed to be there to solve people’s crimes, keep people safe by enforcing speed limits, and rescue kittens stuck in trees.

    But if the true purpose of police is to bust up homeless encampments, shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful student protesters, and generally enforce the prerogatives of the powerful, the whole setup makes a lot more sense.

  6. flange says

    I don’t find the study and its results counter-intuitive at all.
    I’ve seen the gun-toting, warrior mentality of police in every city I’ve lived. The general racism and misanthropy.
    The “Slave Patrol” culture has endured through generations of most police departments. New officers are trained by “experienced” police. Or learn from father, uncle, grandfather, or brother police officers.
    “Serve and Protect” is a nice-sounding mission statement with little basis in reality. Reform is impossible without purging old-world ideas and people. And a new mission statement wouldn’t hurt.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    The police in, say, Norway or Denmark is pretty good.
    I cannot say the same of Sweden, as the leadership was too rigid to adapt to new challenges; first criminal biker gangs, now networks who recruit young kids to sell drugs or even kill rivals.
    The police in Britain used to be seen as exemplary, but is full of misogyny and other crap. And the tory government even apparently see Merican police as a role model.

  8. says

    PZ, maybe you could take some time to convince Joe Biden of this, so he’d stop throwing even more money at them, despite the increasing evidence that they’re murderous, amoral, and out of control. Of course, if Biden were susceptible to logic or evidence, he would have stopped funding Israel for the exact same reasons. Which are, of course, two of the reasons why polls now show him losing swing states to Trump, nice to see the “we can push him left” people were so diligent and the party is so reasonable. You know, most of the time, when people deliberately throw contests, they have to be paid, but Biden is apparently doing it for the sheer love of violence. I guess the two parties aren’t alike, after all.

  9. John Morales says

    PZ, maybe you could take some time to convince Joe Biden of this

    Vicar (singular, hypocrite), maybe you yourself could take some time to convince Joe Biden this, instead of merely exhorting others to do it for you in blog comments.

    (I reckon a blog post probably matters more than a blog comment in terms of influence, so PZ is still ahead of you, there)

    Of course, if Biden were susceptible to logic or evidence, he would have stopped funding Israel for the exact same reasons.

    Sure, Biden is neither susceptible to logic or evidence, as you see it.

    (How stupid can you be to imagine people are so stupid as to buy your claims? Enough, evidently)

  10. says

    Gotta’ love how resident accelerationist “Vicar” predictably attempts to push his thinly-disguised pro-Trump agenda. I wonder if he’s a member of the brainless horseshoe left or a paid troll writing from a basement near Moscow/Beijing.

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