Perverse Incentives in the Police Department

The police department has been present in the United States for more than 100 years to protect American citizens by ensuring that all laws are followed. Police officers work with that incentive in mind, to protect the American people. The issue is some people believe officers are not cracking down on crime as much as they should be and are not taking their job seriously. For that reason many departments around the U.S. have established systems that require officers to give out a number of tickets or make arrests, which is illegal. These systems sometimes referred to as quotas, are used to ensure productivity among officers to protect against crime. Departments have continued to deny these allegations, but officers have come forth and described quotas like “ 20 tickets and one arrest per month.”2 Although these policies are set in place to better the lives of people by having stricter law enforcement, there are many perverse incentives. Naked Economics defines perverse incentives as “the inadvertent incentives that can be created when we set out to do something completely different.”3 Having these types of quotas is leading officers to have perverse incentives, which leads them to make arrests or give tickets when truly no crime has been committed. The officers begin to no longer want to ensure safety in communities, but are pressured to arrest and give tickets all the time to meet strict requirements. This leads people to lose trust in the police departments, since in some cases innocent people are being arrested or fined for crimes. The book describes how “bad policy… fails to anticipate how rational individuals might change their behavior to avoid being penalized.” 3 Having quotas in police departments completely changes the way police act because they are no longer concerned with the safety of others. Rather they are more focused on avoiding punishment from not meeting arrest or ticket requirements. A New York police officers describes that to him “it became clear that his supervisors only cared about two things: tickets and arrests.”2 This type of mindset rubs off on officers and they alter their behavior and mindset to meet requirements in their department. Naked Economics also describes, “good policy uses incentives to channel behavior toward some desired outcome.” 3 Keeping the original incentives of police officers to protect and help American citizens needs to be considered in police departments. Officers should not be encouraged to make arrests and give tickets, when they don’t want or think they should be given because it creates hostility between officers and citizens. Instead officers should be encouraged to go out and help citizens and build a relationship with their community, instead of only serving as someone who gives tickets and arrests people. These incentives channel the desired outcome of the police, which is to protect and serve American citizens.

  1. Douglas, Jack, Jr., and Jason Allen. “One North Texas Officer Says Ticket Quotas Do   Exist… And …” CBS DFW. May 20, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2016.
  1. Rose, Joel. “Despite Laws And Lawsuits, Quota-Based Policing Lingers – NPR.” NPR. April 4, 2015. Accessed October 21, 2016.
  1. Wheelan, Charles J. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: Norton, 2002.




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