Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA
President, bSci21Media, LLC
The Issue: Defunding Police Departments
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police was a watershed moment in the Black Lives Matter movement and for police reform both within and outside the United States. Of particular note is the growing call to defund police departments.
What People are Saying
Dr. Rashawn Ray, a Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, recently noted that “defunding” police departments is not the same as “abolishing” them. Rather, “defunding police highlights fiscal responsibility, advocates for a market-driven approach to taxpayer money, and has some potential benefits that will reduce police violence and crime.” Money that was flowing into police departments would be reallocated to other agencies based on local needs.
Moreover, he suggested that officers spend too much time responding to low priority calls that are not even crimes, such as animals stuck in trees, and that the vast majority of police calls are for nonviolent incidents, in addition to an overabundance of paperwork. He suggests these as areas to reallocate to other positions, in order to free up more time for responding to and solving violent crimes.
And the latter has a fairly dismal track record, with a minority of rapes, robberies, burglaries, and theft cases ending in arrest. Moreover, data shows only 53% of assault cases, and 61% of murder cases end in arrest, according to national crime data.
In addition, data on crime rate and police department spending suggests that increased budgets don’t necessarily impact falling crime rates. According to the Washington Post, a scatterplot of police spending each year since 1960 (in 2018 dollars) compared to crime rates shows no significant correlation.
So far, several large departments are already planning for reallocating hundreds of millions of dollars, including departments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Baltimore. At least one city – Minneapolis – has voted to completely remove their police department and “rethink public safety from the ground up” though details as to what that will look like are unclear.
A Contextual Behavioral Science Perspective
Rule-Governed Rigidity. However, we also have to recognize the officers as employees. This means they operate within an organizational context of policies outlined by the department and its leaders. If officers are over worked and allocating their time in suboptimal ways, then a disconnect is present between the officers on the front line and policies in place by the leaders of the department. In other words, the policies are not accurately tracking the reality on the front lines in a flexible and adaptive manner. Instead, what appears to be happening is that officers are responding to overly rigid rules that are maintained by the correspondence between the officers’ behavior and leadership – rather than the officers’ behavior and critical outcomes pertaining to criminal activity.
Thus, two critical forms of rule-governed behavior are potentially at play here: tracking (behavior governed by rules that accurately correspond to environmental events) and pliance (behavior governed by rules maintained by the correspondence between the behaving person and a rule giver). For more information, you can check out Psychological Flexibility, ACT, and Organizational Behavior, a paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. As with the Matching Law, what we know about rule governed behavior can further guide our efforts at examining departments and pinpointing areas in need of change – in this case, policy that may be disconnected from important events happening on the front lines in the daily work of police officers.
Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way. Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar. He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues. His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition. He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Dr. Ward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.