Policing and public safety

A seemingly-endless stream of high-profile killings of civilians by police have led to heated conversations about the role of police in the production of public safety. Do police actually make communities safer? And are there other ways to achieve that goal?

In this survey, we asked the CJ Expert Panel to consider three statements related to ways communities might seek to improve public safety, broadly defined. Their responses are below.

Increasing police budgets will improve public safety.

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Increasing social service budgets (e.g. housing, health, education) will improve public safety.

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Increasing accountability for police misconduct will improve public safety.

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Responses

Increasing police budgets will improve public safety. - participant responses

Participant Vote Confidence Comment
Paolo Pinotti Bocconi University Agree 7
William Horrace Syracuse University Disagree 7
Aaron Chalfin University of Pennsylvania Strongly Agree 8
Giovanni Mastrobuoni Collegio Carlo Alberto Strongly Agree 10
David Kirk University of Oxford Agree 9 The degree to which more police resources will improve public safety highly depends on how they use the money.
Tom Clark Emory University No Opinion 7 My expectation about th effect on public safety is conditional on department-level characteristics.
Jens Ludwig University of Chicago Agree 7 We have lots of very good evidence on this point from the economics of crime research literature, but also lots of evidence that there can be variability across departments in how much harm results (so implementation will matter a lot).
Anna Bindler University of Cologne Agree 7 Whether or not and to what extent this is the case will depend on what the extra budget is used for. The evidence base differs across options (manpower, training programmes, equipment, etc.). A general statement is thus difficult to make.
Michael Makowsky Clemson University Disagree 3 I would weakly agree with the statement "increasing police personnel budgets will improve public safety"
Alex Tabarrok George Mason University Strongly Agree 8 There is a strong consensus in the academic literature that more police reduces crime.
Rosanna Smart RAND Corporation Agree 4
J.J. Prescott University of Michigan Disagree 5
Stephen Billings University of Colorado - Boulder Agree 5
David Harding University of California - Berkeley Disagree 5 Effects are likely to vary by baseline budgets and community characteristics.
Priscillia Hunt RAND Corporation Agree 9 Depends for what.
Erdal Tekin American University Agree 8
Randi Hjalmarsson University of Gothenberg Agree 7
David Weisburd George Mason University No Opinion 8 Just increasing police budgets will not improve public safety. What matters is how that money is used.
Jennifer Doleac Texas A&M University Strongly Agree 9 Assuming that a large share of additional funds will be used to hire additional officers. There is a strong consensus in the literature that hiring more police reduces crime.
Jamein Cunningham University of Memphis Agree 7 If funds are use to build community trust or improve police performance (not measured by clearance rates).
Jeffrey Grogger University of Chicago Disagree 8
Morgan Williams, Jr. New York University Agree 7
Greg Midgette University of Maryland Agree 3
Megan Stevenson University of Virginia Disagree 4 I don't feel qualified to answer this. But many of those most impacted say that their safety needs would be better addressed by directing funding away from police and towards other services. So I try to listen to that.
Patrick Sharkey Princeton University No Opinion 1
Charles Loeffler University of Pennsylvania Agree 9 Using conventional metrics of public safety, available studies suggest that budget expansions increase public safety.
Santiago Tobón Universidad EAFIT Strongly Agree 10
Paul Heaton University of Pennsylvania No Opinion 10 Can be true; much depends on how police spend the money
David Bjerk Claremont McKenna College Disagree 5 It depends on what is actually done with the money.
Anna Harvey New York University No Opinion 5 Potentially offsetting effects here: increased police budgets reduce homicides and index crime arrests, but increase arrests for minor offenses (Chalfin et al 2021); prosecuting those minor misdemeanor offenses may harm public safety (Agan et al 2021).
Jillian Carr Purdue University Agree 3 I think increased funds going to the right places could help, but blanket increases are unlikely to do so.
John MacDonald No Opinion 10 The questions is vague. Increasing budgets could simply imply provide pay raises, pension benefits, or equipment. If increasing budgets meant hiring more police than I would strongly agree with the statement.
Peter Reuter University of Maryland Disagree 8 Police management competence is the limiting factor
Ariel White Massachusetts Institute of Technology No Opinion 1 There are certainly studies that show hiring more officers can, in certain contexts, reduce certain types of crime. I'm not sure those studies let us directly evaluate the broader conclusion that increased police budgets would translate into a net improvement in "public safety."
Michael Stoll University of California - Los Angeles Agree 5 Depends on what kind of policing strategies are used, and how budgets are spent. Community based policing or policing with strong civilian oversight boards (or better those police departments with strong accountability to the communities they serve) would fare better than other alternatives
Kevin Schnepel Simon Fraser University Agree 5
Robert Apel Rutgers University Agree 4 I buy the evidence that more spending *can* improve public safety. But so can reorienting existing police resources in a way that uses them more efficiently and along the lines suggested in the consensus report of the Committee on Proactive Policing.
Shawn Bushway RAND Corporation Agree 9 This is a settled issue. More police equal less crime. There is also research showing proactive policing reduces crime in the short run.
Ayobami Laniyonu University of Toronto, St. George Agree 8
Monica Deza City University of New York Agree 10 Increasing budgets, particularly if utilized to train officers better, could increase their efficiency while decreasing their potential risk to civilians
Manudeep Bhuller University of Oslo Agree 6
David Abrams University of Pennsylvania Agree 6 It depends on how the money is spent. There is good evidence that police presence reduces crime. But a great deal of police activity is of uncertain utility (like police stops) and racially disparate policing may undermine confidence in police and reduce public safety in the long run.
Manisha Shah University of California - Los Angeles No Opinion 7 I don't know (have no opinion) as this depends on how the budget would be utilized.
Felipe Goncalves University of California, Los Angeles Agree 8 I would more strongly agree with the statement "hiring more police officers will improve public safety." It's not clear that increasing other expenditures by police departments, such as on equipment and technology, would meaningfully advance public safety.
Greg Ridgeway University of Pennsylvania Strongly Disagree 9
Robynn Cox University of Southern California Disagree 7 Depends on the community.
Amanda Agan Rutgers University No Opinion 5 Depends on how spent and definition of public safety. Additional officers reduce reported crime (Evans&Owens 2007); but increase police contact, which can decrease safety and psychological well-being for some communities and potentially be criminogenic (Chalfin e.a. 2021, Agan e.a. 2021). Mixed evidence for other spending reducing reported crime.
Stephen Machin London School of Economics Agree 6 If additional budgets allocated to offset previous spending cutbacks in key policing areas.
Beau Kilmer RAND Corporation Agree 6 Much depends on the characteristics of the police department, the crime situation in the community, and how the funds will be spent

Increasing social service budgets (e.g. housing, health, education) will improve public safety. - participant responses

Participant Vote Confidence Comment
Paolo Pinotti Bocconi University Agree 7
William Horrace Syracuse University Strongly Agree 9
Aaron Chalfin University of Pennsylvania Agree 5
Giovanni Mastrobuoni Collegio Carlo Alberto Strongly Agree 10
David Kirk University of Oxford Agree 7 Depends on which social service.
Tom Clark Emory University Strongly Agree 8
Jens Ludwig University of Chicago Agree 3 We have good evidence that SOME forms of social services can reduce the sorts of crime that drive social harms (violence in particular). But the public conversation right now treats all social services as being equivalent in their violence-prevention impacts, which (together with the inevitable big-city politics) creates questions about what sorts of services would actually get funded in practice.
Anna Bindler University of Cologne Strongly Agree 8 The specific answer may again differ by what exactly the budget is allocated to. A general statement is thus difficult, but overall the evidence suggests improvements in public safety.
Michael Makowsky Clemson University Agree 4
Alex Tabarrok George Mason University Agree 6
Rosanna Smart RAND Corporation Strongly Agree 8
J.J. Prescott University of Michigan Strongly Agree 10
Stephen Billings University of Colorado - Boulder Strongly Agree 8
David Harding University of California - Berkeley Strongly Agree 10
Priscillia Hunt RAND Corporation Agree 7
Erdal Tekin American University Agree 8
Randi Hjalmarsson University of Gothenberg Strongly Agree 8
David Weisburd George Mason University No Opinion 8 Just increasing social service will not increase public safety. This depends on how the monies are invested. Moreover, there is not a clear definition of public safety here. Is public safety only about crime and disorder? It should clearly be about something broader.
Jennifer Doleac Texas A&M University Agree 7 My hunch (based on existing research) is that we dramatically underinvest in such programs from a public safety perspective. But not all programs are effective, so we still have a lot of work to do to figure out exactly which programs should get more funding and how to scale them.
Jamein Cunningham University of Memphis Strongly Agree 8
Jeffrey Grogger University of Chicago Disagree 8
Morgan Williams, Jr. New York University No Opinion 5
Greg Midgette University of Maryland Agree 5
Megan Stevenson University of Virginia Strongly Agree 8 This seems kind of definitional, if you take a broad understanding of public safety that includes shelter, health, and access to opportunity.
Patrick Sharkey Princeton University No Opinion 1
Charles Loeffler University of Pennsylvania Disagree 6 In the short-term (6 mons. to 2 yrs), increasing social service budgets will be unlikely to increase public safety based on conventional metrics. In the long-term (5-10 yrs), such non-targeted investments could produce modest improvements.
Santiago Tobón Universidad EAFIT Strongly Agree 10
Paul Heaton University of Pennsylvania Agree 8 Probably true, but it depends on how money is spent
David Bjerk Claremont McKenna College Agree 8 Again, it depends on what is done with the money.
Anna Harvey New York University Agree 7 Conditional agree, if social services targeted to support proven interventions: summer jobs for disadvantaged youth (Modestino 2019, Davis and Heller 2020), more/better time in school (Deming 2011, Anderson 2014, Hjalmarsson et al 2015), more/better treatment for mental health/substance abuse (Bondurant et al 2018, Kilmer and Midgette 2020)
Jillian Carr Purdue University Strongly Agree 9
John MacDonald No Opinion 10 Again this is vague question and it doesn't say what the budget increase will go to. If it is simply putting more money into public housing or education without focused on human resources than the answer is disagree. If the money is being spent on hiring more teachers, aids for students, and other classroom assistance than I would agree that this investment will improve public safety in the longer-term. Similarly, if housing budgets increase to provide more affordable housing or remediation of e
Peter Reuter University of Maryland Agree 5 Statement is too broad. Depends too much on which agency gets what resources for what purposes.
Ariel White Massachusetts Institute of Technology Agree 6
Michael Stoll University of California - Los Angeles Strongly Agree 10
Kevin Schnepel Simon Fraser University Strongly Agree 10
Robert Apel Rutgers University Agree 7 There is good reason to believe that social services which target low-income individuals (e.g., public assistance) have positive spillovers for public safety, although evidence for other services (e.g., housing vouchers) is mixed. Where there is the most bang for the buck is very unclear.
Shawn Bushway RAND Corporation Disagree 8 There is very little research showing that direct investment in these public services will reduce crime. This is not surprising, in part because each of these things is indirect. We first have to improve that outcome (which can be tough) and then that outcome has to reduce crime. As a result, large investments will apriori only have a small predicted effect even if the effect sizes are decent size.
Ayobami Laniyonu University of Toronto, St. George Strongly Agree 9
Monica Deza City University of New York Disagree 10 Depends on the take-up rate. Housing can agglomerate potentially violent people who would be less likely to act violent had they not been in close proximity to each other. Health (Especially mental health), I think would be beneficial at decreasing crime, conditional on take-up
Manudeep Bhuller University of Oslo Strongly Agree 8
David Abrams University of Pennsylvania Agree 7 As with policing, it depends how the money is spent. There is great evidence that expenditures on early childhood education have numerous long-run benefits, including on public safety. But there no doubt are social service expenditures that have little to no value.
Manisha Shah University of California - Los Angeles Strongly Agree 8
Felipe Goncalves University of California, Los Angeles Agree 8 Some expenditures, such as mental health services and longer school days, would likely have immediate public safety benefits. Other interventions, such as improved housing and early-childhood education, have benefits over longer time horizons. So improved social services are important but not necessarily direct substitutes for public safety spending.
Greg Ridgeway University of Pennsylvania Agree 8
Robynn Cox University of Southern California Strongly Agree 9 Again, depends on community and whether funds are targeted.
Amanda Agan Rutgers University Agree 6 In the long-run likely yes. More/better education reduces crime (Lochner&Moretti 2004, Heckman e.a. 2010, Deming 2011); access to health insurance decreases crime (Aslim e.a. 2019, He&Barkowski 2020); safety net access in childhood decreases adult crime (Barr&Gibbs 2019, Bailey e.a. 2020); summer jobs decrease violence (Heller 2014). Could depend on program, of course.
Stephen Machin London School of Economics Agree 6
Beau Kilmer RAND Corporation Strongly Agree 9 Much depends on the service infrastructure and needs in the jurisdiction as well as how the funds will be spent. There is also a timing issue here; some of these investments could take much longer to improve public safety

Increasing accountability for police misconduct will improve public safety. - participant responses

Participant Vote Confidence Comment
Paolo Pinotti Bocconi University Strongly Agree 10
William Horrace Syracuse University Strongly Agree 9
Aaron Chalfin University of Pennsylvania No Opinion 5
Giovanni Mastrobuoni Collegio Carlo Alberto Agree 7
David Kirk University of Oxford Agree 4
Tom Clark Emory University Agree 9
Jens Ludwig University of Chicago Agree 5 There are good conceptual reasons for thinking that improved accountability (if we can figure out how to do that) could improve community trust in police, which would have all sorts of public safety benefits. We don't have a lot of rigorous studies documenting that at this point in time but we do have some suggestive case studies.
Anna Bindler University of Cologne No Opinion 10 There is much more to be learned about accountability for police misconduct and public safety, including and going beyond excessive force by police.
Michael Makowsky Clemson University Strongly Agree 5
Alex Tabarrok George Mason University Agree 6
Rosanna Smart RAND Corporation Agree 6
J.J. Prescott University of Michigan Strongly Agree 7
Stephen Billings University of Colorado - Boulder Agree 4
David Harding University of California - Berkeley Strongly Agree 8
Priscillia Hunt RAND Corporation Disagree 5
Erdal Tekin American University Strongly Agree 10
Randi Hjalmarsson University of Gothenberg No Opinion 7
David Weisburd George Mason University Agree 8 Again, I think you have to define public safety broadly. The police using unnecessary violence, or injuring community solidarity reduces public safety. At the same time, I think there is evidence that when people trust the police they will cooperate more with the police. This will improve public safety as well.
Jennifer Doleac Texas A&M University Agree 4 Increasing civilians' trust in and cooperation with police should make it easier for officers to solve crimes and protect communities. But we have very little evidence on this -- largely because there hasn't been much policy experimentation in this area.
Jamein Cunningham University of Memphis Strongly Agree 7
Jeffrey Grogger University of Chicago Agree 5
Morgan Williams, Jr. New York University Agree 5
Greg Midgette University of Maryland Agree 3
Megan Stevenson University of Virginia Strongly Agree 8 People respond to incentives.
Patrick Sharkey Princeton University Agree 1
Charles Loeffler University of Pennsylvania No Opinion 7 Accountability for police misconduct is likely to produce gains and losses of unknown relative size in terms of public safety. The gains will most likely be realized over a longer time horizon.
Santiago Tobón Universidad EAFIT Strongly Agree 10
Paul Heaton University of Pennsylvania No Opinion 8 Unclear; greater accountability might affect recruiting in unpredictable ways
David Bjerk Claremont McKenna College Agree 5
Anna Harvey New York University Strongly Agree 8 Reduced accountability for police misconduct leads to more incidents of violent police misconduct (Dharmapala et al forthcoming); judicial interventions to address discriminatory police practices lead to decreases in Black crime victimization (Harvey and Mattia 2021)
Jillian Carr Purdue University Agree 5
John MacDonald Strongly Agree 10 If fair and transparent efforts are made to reduce police misconduct this will help keep better officers in the police profession and ensure better community trust.
Peter Reuter University of Maryland No Opinion 3 Again, it depends on details. An effective accountability mechanism might help but most accountability has not been well implemented.
Ariel White Massachusetts Institute of Technology No Opinion 1
Michael Stoll University of California - Los Angeles Strongly Agree 10
Kevin Schnepel Simon Fraser University Strongly Agree 8
Robert Apel Rutgers University No Opinion 1 I don't think there is any solid evidence one way or the other. Although if greater accountability leads law enforcement agencies to respond like children and withdraw services from communities which need them, one could argue it could worsen public safety.
Shawn Bushway RAND Corporation No Opinion 6 I don't think accountability for police misconduct has much to do with public safety. I think community police relationships are a distinct value from public safety, and deserves to be considered on its own, independent of its impact on public safety.
Ayobami Laniyonu University of Toronto, St. George Agree 7
Monica Deza City University of New York Agree 10 There are tradeoffs cine it will also provide incentives for police to dismiss "minor crimes," which would then incentivize criminals to escalate those crimes. However, increasing accountability would lead to better training, which would improve efficiency at how to handle each situations in a more catered manner
Manudeep Bhuller University of Oslo No Opinion 1
David Abrams University of Pennsylvania No Opinion 5 I don't know of good evidence on the impact of increasing police accountability. I strongly believe that in the long run it will improve policing (which is not identical to improving public safety) although it could have a short-run negative impact on public safety depending on how it is implemented.
Manisha Shah University of California - Los Angeles Agree 8
Felipe Goncalves University of California, Los Angeles No Opinion 5 Police accountability is valuable in itself, separate from its impact on public safety. There is limited empirical evidence that accountability improves public safety, including police force. Importantly, there is also little evidence that improved accountability *worsens* public safety by constraining police.
Greg Ridgeway University of Pennsylvania Agree 8
Robynn Cox University of Southern California Agree 5 Again, depends. Some communities get public safety, while others social control. There should be some public safety costs to crimes committed by police. However, there may also be a concern about behavioral responses to accountability by police officers.
Amanda Agan Rutgers University Agree 5 We do not have a lot of evidence on accountability yet: mixed evidence from police unions (Dharmapala e.a. 2018; Goncalves 2021); accountability for discrimination through affirmative action decreases victimization (Harvey and Mattia 2019). More accountability should decrease misconduct, could improve police-community relationships. Seems important regardless.
Stephen Machin London School of Economics Agree 6
Beau Kilmer RAND Corporation Agree 8