July 15, 2016

Policing Project Receives Grant for Cost-Benefit Analysis Initiative


The Policing Project is pleased to announce it has received a generous grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation for a two-year initiative to improve the application of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to policing. This grant provides funding for efforts to advance the use of CBA in evaluating policing practices, and to prepare practitioner-friendly tools enabling law enforcement agencies and their communities to use CBA in their decision-making processes.

This grant comes at an opportune moment. The United States currently spends over $100 billion annually on law enforcement.  Yet, we have remarkably little clear evidence of which policing techniques are effective and which are not. In addition, as advances occur, police departments nationwide must decide whether to spend millions more dollars on technologies such as facial recognition, license plate readers, drones and body-worn cameras.

Cost-benefit analysis is a procedure that attempts to identify and weigh the full range of positive and negative consequences produced by a particular policy or program. Modern CBA is not just a simple accounting exercise.  Considerable sophistication is required to account for all costs and benefits, including those that might not be felt immediately, those that might be felt unevenly by different people, and those that are difficult to quantify – such as psychological costs.

For example, suppose a local health department conducts a CBA for a proposal designed to reduce smoking. This CBA must compare the direct costs of the program and the benefit to lowering health spending by current smokers. This CBA must also include benefits, such as improvements to former smoker’s quality of life and reductions in second-hand smoke exposure. Similarly, the CBA must include costs, such as the hardship (e.g. short-term weight-gain and increased depression) people feel when quitting smoking. All these costs and benefits must be weighed to decide whether the program is worth implementing.

Although CBA is employed extensively in many areas of government policy, it still is in its infancy for policing. In part, this is because, until recently, there simply has been little demand. Additionally, CBA of policing practices turns out to be particularly difficult, as the costs and benefits of police practices are extremely difficult to quantify. For example, how does one assign a dollar figure to privacy, or assess the impact on police-community relations? Additionally, CBA must address whether the costs and benefits of police practices are felt unequally by communities of different races, ages, incomes, and educations.

Today, there plainly is greater demand for policing CBA.  In November of 2015, LJAF and the Policing Project jointly hosted a conference of law enforcement leaders.  We asked attending police chiefs to identify areas in which they would like to see CBA. The chiefs returned a long list, including the use of random patrol, special teams and protocols for dealing with mentally disturbed individuals, de-escalation of force tactics, whether stop-and-frisk is effective, and whether it makes sense to arrest for low level offenses (particularly drugs).  In addition, the chiefs targeted the deployment of new technologies – from facial recognition to body-worn cameras – as an area in which they want help. Participants were candid in stating that they often simply do not know what works and what does not, and that this information is essential for good policing.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s grant provides funding for what will be a two-stage project. First, the Policing Project will assemble a panel of leading academics to discuss how CBA can be implemented successfully in the context of police practices. These experts will come from a range of disciplines, including criminologists, economists, social psychologists, and other quantitative methods experts who have tackled challenging CBA issues in other fields.  The results of these conversations will be assembled and distributed so that policymakers and researchers can learn from the new approaches and solutions.

Then, in the second stage, academic discussion will shift to actual practice. The Policing Project will pair small teams of academics with specific police departments in order to do an initial CBA analysis of various policing tools.  Working together, each of these teams will be responsible for producing innovative and useful results that can be incorporated immediately into police departments’ decisionmaking.  The Policing Project will work closely with these teams to finalize their papers for publication in formats accessible to law enforcement officials as well as researchers.  We also will develop practitioner guides to enable departments to perform their own CBA of local policing practices.

The Policing Project is grateful to LJAF for its support of this potentially transformative work.  By bringing CBA more fully to policing, we hope to make progress on understanding what is effective policing and what is not, including obtaining the maximum law enforcement with the minimal intrusion into personal property and liberty.