The Police Aren’t Immune from Politics

New York Police officers in Times Square in 2013. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Partisan tribal allegiance is a huge obstacle to badly needed law-enforcement reforms.

Dallas — Here in the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, the three largest constituent municipalities — Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington, total population about 3 million — have something in common: All of them are looking for new police chiefs at the same time.

Dallas, the largest city in north Texas, has the same pathologies as any other large American city, and it is even worse-run than the average American city: The quality of its city services is way down among Bridgeport, Conn., and Akron, Ohio, in the rankings — far below San Francisco and Washington, neither of which is exactly an exemplar of municipal excellence.

Dallas’s departing police chief, Reneé Hall, a former Detroit police officer who “collects handguns and vintage gowns and Louis Vuitton bags,” ran into a number of ordinary controversies during her first months on the job. A black woman, she suggested that she was having a hard go of it because of racism and sexism, and that she was subjected to unrealistic expectations. She was the butt of a lot of jokes when she raced to the hospital after one of Dallas’s crack SWAT officers accidentally shot himself in the leg, and she showed up still wearing little plastic booties from the pedicurist appointment the situation had interrupted.

More seriously: Dallas’s murder rate is up, and there were complaints about the department’s handling of the recent protests, after which the city council gutted the police department’s overtime budget. Dallas is visibly more disorderly than it was a year ago, and has the feel of a city headed in the wrong direction.

This is not an age of glory for American police chiefs. The police chief of Bridgeport has just been arrested on charges that he conspired with the personnel office to rig his own hiring. Police chiefs in three cities in Marin County, Calif. (San Rafael, Tiburon, and Fairfax) are leaving their posts for a variety of reasons: In one case, there were allegations of racial profiling; in another, the chief simply declared with refreshing honesty that he had maxed out his pension eligibility and was walking away for purely financial reasons. The chief in Albuquerque, N.M., after just a little more than two years on the job, has had enough, and is leaving to spend more time with his family. The police chief in Salt Lake City is under heavy criticism after an officer shot a 13-year-old autistic boy and his department was less than forthcoming about it. The chief and much of the top brass in Rochester, N.Y., are being shown the door after the death in custody of Daniel Prude.

Police incompetence is a constant theme in American urban life. So is police corruption: the Ramparts police gang in Los Angeles (bank robbery, murder), the spectacular crime spree that was Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force (robbery, drug-dealing, evidence-tampering), the NYPD detectives working as hit men for the Lucchese and Gambino crime syndicates, etc. That’s the made-for-the-movies stuff, but there also is the more run-of-the-mill corruption, such as Philadelphia police officers’ filing phony overtime claims. And not everything that is dodgy is actually illegal: With overtime, Philadelphia detectives sometimes earn north of $300,000 a year; an auditor’s review of millions of dollars of Philadelphia police overtime found that in many cases, there was “no evidence of supervisor approval, or it was added after the fact.”

If you spend much time following municipal government at almost any level, you will discover that police departments look a lot like school districts. Police chiefs are hired in much the same way as school superintendents; police and schools typically account for the largest shares of municipal budgets and the biggest parts of the payroll; the unions and professional associations representing them become princely powers unto themselves; policies are shaped to maximize compensation and minimize accountability.

Politically speaking, police and teachers are a great deal alike in that their agencies are swaddled and padded by the sentimentality attached to their professions. Just as the Democrats are reflexively defensive about teachers, Republicans take an excessively heroic view of the police. In both cases, political tribalism causes partisans to excuse or minimize behavior that ranges from the incompetent to the criminal. In both cases, the story is almost always the same: “a few bad apples.”

And maybe it is a few bad apples. But the rest of the proverb gets left out: “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.” And whole-barrel spoilage is what we are seeing in police departments around the country.

That should not surprise us. Police departments and schools are subject to exactly the same problems we expect to see in other government agencies: agent-principal problems, institutional capture, misaligned incentives, nepotism, self-dealing, closing of the ranks in the face of criticism. Taking a hero-worshipping view of police officers or teachers can prevent us from working toward the institutional reforms in law enforcement and education that are so obviously needful. Republicans can see that there are problems with the schools, and Democrats can see that there are problems with the police. On balance, Republicans are more open to police reform than Democrats are to school reform, but both issues are dominated by the politics of tribal allegiance.

Dallas will lay a few hundred thousand dollars on the table and conduct a nationwide search for a new chief, who will, if precedent holds, heroically overpromise and dramatically under-deliver. Changing the name and the face at the top of the org chart may be necessary, and it may even be healthy, but the institution’s problems are bigger and deeper than that. Around the country, our city leaders take a “shopping list” view of deep and complex challenges, and proceed as though hiring a new leader who meets x, y, and z criteria is enough. But real reform is not a widget that can be purchased and installed.

There are not many genuinely heroic and transformative leaders of municipal agencies to be found in the job market. Relying on such saviors is a formula for failure, as Dallas and so many other cities have shown.