Efficacy and Cost-Benefit Analysis

The United States spends more than $100 billion annually on law enforcement. And, as the events that have roiled the country make clear, policing practices can affect people in profound ways. Yet, we often know surprisingly little about what works and what does not, and we do little to quantify or take account of these costs of policing.

Our aim is to ensure that policing is carried out in a way that advances public safety and security, while minimizing attendant harms, particularly on poor and minority communities that often are the most heavily—but not always the most effectively—policed.

We’re not alone in this.  Policing officials and others often point to practices or techniques that have been used for decades—from random patrols to stop-and-frisk—but have not been subjected to rigorous analysis to determine if they are the most effective use of agency resources, or if the public safety benefits of using the techniques are worth the social costs they impose. At the same time, there are many new technologies, from facial recognition to predictive policing, which can be very expensive but are of uncertain value.

One of the best tools for ensuring effective policing is cost-benefit analysis (CBA). CBA is a procedure that attempts to identify and weigh the full range of positive and negative consequences produced by a particular policy or program. It is used frequently across all levels of government (as well as in the private sector). But CBA is not applied broadly to policing—and in particular, there are no models for incorporating policing’s social costs. We would like to see that change.

With the generous support of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we have taken the first step toward this change by founding the Policing Cost-Benefit Analysis Lab (PCBAL). The PCBAL is a three-stage initiative to improve the application of cost-benefit analysis to policing, and to prepare practitioner-friendly tools that will enable law enforcement agencies and their communities to use cost-benefit analysis in their decision-making processes.

If you’d like more information or would like to help, contact us.