Defunding Police: What behavioral science can contribute.

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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

Choice and The Matching Law.  A primary issue raised by Dr. Ray regarded police officers’ time allocation, and noted a need to free up more time for dealing with violent crimes.  In other words, the actions of any given officer during a shift are split between responding to calls of varying degrees of urgency, to administrative work and documentation.  Such a situation relates to research on choice, and The Matching Law in particular.  The Matching Law is a mathematical formula that accurately predicts choice responding among alternatives relative to the rate of reinforcement provided for each choice.  For particulars on the Law, you can see a previous article in which we discussed a study in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior that used the Law to predict passing  vs rushing plays in the NFL. Research from the Matching Law can guide departmental efforts in looking at where the reinforcers or incentives really are in the day to day work of police officers, and guide change efforts.


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.

What do you think of the movement to defund the police?  Let us know in the  comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


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

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  1. Hi Dr. Ward,
    Thank you for your excellent article! I believe that “defunding” police will not change police behavior – except to possibly deter people who would like to serve their communities in law enforcement from becoming police men and women. There are violent individuals who go into careers that allow the expression of control. These individuals are reinforced by being in control. But, a few bad actors does not equal everyone being bad actors. Changes definitely need to happen to reduce unnecessary force and perhaps one approach is to design standardized assessments for recruits that identify bias, violent tendencies, and control-leanings. Unless the money taken from police operations goes into evidence-based community approaches to provide better schools, support programs for families impacted by poverty, and after school programs that provide positive experiences for children that build their self-confidence and self-esteem, few positive outcomes will be realized.
    Thank you for your thought-provoking article!

    • Thanks Harla! We provided solutions to make the money that is going to fund police more efficient, and to eliminate redundacies, and overall boost the productivity of departments at the employee and systems level. One important piece is to let the police focus on violent offenses.

    • Thank you for input Harla! I agree that “defunding” police will not completely change their behavior due to the rich history of reinforcement that has established with “control”. However, I agree with Dr. Ward that restructuring and allocating less violent crimes to other individuals will refocus the police’s attention where it is more needed. Additionally, requiring more education for police officers when they are in the academy, like behavioral science and legal courses (policies and procedures), could help prevent overuse of force or control.

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