The Dismal Science

Excellent Police

What the Baltimore P.D. can teach your office about multitasking and incentives.

Baltimore police officers respond to gunfire at the Pedestal Gardens Apartments in 2007


The following is an excerpt from The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, out this week from Twelve.

On Oct. 29, 1999, Peter Moskos sat in the office of the acting commissioner of the Baltimore City Police Department facing a life-altering choice: sign up for training with Baltimore City Police recruit class 99-5 or return to the Harvard sociology department a failure.

Moskos was a sociologist, born and bred. His father, Charles, a renowned military sociologist, was best known as the originator of President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton with a degree in sociology, Peter Moskos enrolled in Harvard’s prestigious Ph.D. program (rejection rate: 95 percent) and planned to study policing. Moskos wanted to follow in the footsteps of other sociologists by immersing himself in the lives of his subjects—in his case, the police officers who fought the war on drugs.

Police departments routinely let Boy Scouts, Junior Police Rangers, and Hollywood stars ride along. But Moskos is no Boy Scout, and he’s certainly no Matt Damon. No one Moskos approached with his proposal would give him the time of day. And why would they have? What commissioner would let some potentially uber-liberal Ivy League do-gooder sociologist into his department to pick at old scabs, dig up trash, and document well-hidden skeletons in the department’s closet?

A ranking police officer, a friend of Peter’s father, whispered in the ear of Baltimore’s police commissioner, Thomas Frazier, who knew he was on his way out. A mayoral election was just around the corner, and all the leading candidates save one were on the record saying that the police department needed new leadership. A commissioner who knew he’d be gone in a matter of months didn’t need to give much thought to the wreckage Moskos’s visit might leave behind. Frazier allowed Moskos to observe recruit class 99-5 during their time at the police academy and then to follow them out onto the streets.

Still, Frazier’s replacement, Ronald L. Daniel—who would be stuck with any fallout from Moskos’ work—didn’t have quite so laissez-faire an attitude. (Daniel resigned after just a few months, but as Moskos notes in his book Cop in the Hood—on which, together with interviews of Moskos, we base much of this account—Moskos’ ulterior motives were lost in the shuffle when Daniel’s replacement came in.) Once informed of the situation, Daniel ordered Moskos into his office but didn’t send him packing outright. Instead, he offered Moskos a choice. He could stay, Daniel said, only if he passed the hiring requirements of the department and was willing to become a real police officer. No ride-alongs, no observer status, no sitting back while others did the work. Moskos would get an almost unprecedented look inside the department if he took the full-time job, but he’d also have to put his life at risk policing the city’s crime-ridden Eastern District.

The Baltimore City Police Department has the unenviable charge of cleaning up the streets of a city that’s a perennial front-runner for top spot in virtually every class of violent crime statistic—it’s affectionately nicknamed “Bodymore, Murdaland,” and is the setting for HBO’s celebrated crime drama The Wire—and to do so amid the larger municipal dysfunction of failed schools, a failed economy, and the worst drug problem in America. That makes it a great model for explaining the difficulties that orgs face in getting employees to do their jobs, and for allowing one to appreciate the near-miracle that anything ever gets done there at all. To get a view into the logic and workings of cubicle nation, we consider the particularly messy job of policing the Eastern District on the midnight-to-8:00-a.m. shift. The lessons from Moskos’ experience on the Baltimore City police force—from his hiring, to his job assignments, to how his sergeant monitored and evaluated his performance—can teach us a lot about the decidedly imperfect workplaces where most of us spend our lives.

The Multitasking Police Officer

Most people think of multitasking as a symptom of the information age, the irresistible distractions of smartphones, email, real-time stock quotes, and the Web being such that we can’t stay on task for more than seconds at a time. But when economists speak of multitasking, they’re talking about jobs that have multiple components to them—that is, just about any job at all. This presents a challenge to motivating and evaluating employees. Those on the receiving end of performance evaluations will devote themselves to the tasks that are evaluated while ignoring those that aren’t. If what gets measured is what gets managed, then what gets managed is what gets done.

Pay customer service reps for the number of calls handled rather than an hourly rate, and queries will be dispatched with efficiency. Compensate snowplow drivers for inches of snow cleared instead of by the hour—as Boston began doing in 2009—and they’ll miraculously start plowing faster. Unfortunately, however, performance in customer service and snowplowing aren’t about just speed; they also have an element of quality.

The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office
By Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan

Service reps paid per call may leave behind legions of angry customers whose complaints were received with abrupt (if speedy) indifference. And plowmen motivated by pay-per-inch contracts may speed their trucks through slick, snow-covered streets with rash abandon, ignoring black ice and other hard-to-clear road hazards.

Still, it’s pretty easy to come up with controls to regulate quality through random spot-checks and audits with customer service reps or even plowmen. That’s why so many customer service calls start with the notice “This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance and training purposes.”

Yet, like police officers, most of us juggle many more balls than do snowplow drivers or customer service reps—which is what makes it so hard for the police department to figure out what to tell policemen to do, let alone motivate them to do it.

Suppose you want to pay cops to solve crimes—or, even better, to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. You could stick with crimes that really mattered. If police were paid to get homicide rates down, there would surely be fewer murders in Charm City—you almost always get what you pay for. The unfortunate corollary to this, however, is that you don’t get what you don’t pay for. If low-value burglary were left off the list of remunerated felony arrests, burglars would make out like bandits. If the chosen threshold for a burglary to make it onto the list were $1,000, thieves would soon figure out that the cops won’t bother coming after them if they limit their loot to $999.

Burglary need not even be omitted to create incentive mayhem. If different crimes warranted different rewards, finding the “right” mix of compensation rates for catching thieves versus murderers versus loiterers would be impossible. If all crimes are rewarded equally, police will go after the low-hanging fruit such as parking violations and shoplifters, despite the much higher social cost of murders and billion-dollar frauds. Getting incentives wrong could literally be deadly. And who gets rewarded if the job’s well done? The individual detective who breaks the case? The beat cop who noticed something suspicious? The forensic technician who dug up the critical piece of DNA evidence?

Despite its precision, or maybe because of it, this is not a good way of figuring out what the typical police officer should do, or how to pay him.

Keeping It Simple

These complications might go some way toward explaining the reward structure that filtered down for Baltimore’s patrolmen, summarized by one of the officers in Moskos’ district: “Sarge really likes arrests, and I give them to him… If I see a white junkie coming here to cop [buy drugs], I’ll stop them. Conspiracy to possess. Loitering.” That’s straightforward: Sarge likes arrests; cops arrest people. End of story.

Keeping things simple has its own set of deficiencies. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making arrests for loitering (except a potential violation of civil liberties and damaging relations with the public). As Moskos notes, it’s a good way of clearing the streets of dealers and junkies, at least temporarily. But it also means that lots of cops will look for the lowest-cost way of boosting arrest stats, regardless of whether it’s the best way of making the Eastern District a better, safer place to live. Sarge never said that he likes only good arrests, after all, and the Baltimore officers aren’t rewarded for successful prosecutions, just the arrest itself. So, as with telemarketers paid by the call, if Sarge likes arrests, he risks getting quantity at the expense of quality.

That said, at least cops in the Eastern District are arresting somebody. And so the police force may be best off keeping it simple—it’s a trade-off. The same goes for a sales force paid for generating revenues. They may be tempted to give their customers discounts to make sales without concern for the impact on the company’s bottom line.

To illustrate the double-edged sword of arrest incentives, Moskos recounts the example of a fellow officer who decided to set a record for monthly arrests. His plan: lock people up for violating bicycle regulations. At night, all bikes need a light. The officer would stop cyclists in breach of the bike light rule (which was most of them), ask for ID, and pull out his pad to write a citation. Most riders, though, were biking without ID, and since all offenses become arrestable without identification, the officer’s little scheme netted 26 arrests in a single month. A record. His sergeant was thrilled, telling Moskos, “Look, I don’t know what his motivations are. But I think it’s good. He’s locking people

up, which is more than half the people in this squad.” Why was the sergeant so happy? His boss, the lieutenant, also got kudos for arrests on his shift, and in the sergeant’s words, “As long as the lieutenant likes them, I’m all for it.” And why did the lieutenant like them? Probably because the major did. And so on. Ultimately, we can surmise, the mayor could then say, “We arrested lots of people in the Eastern District. We’re doing our jobs to keep the streets safe,” which, when the streets aren’t particularly safe, also helps to deflect the blame.

Police officers in the Eastern District certainly got the message. Moskos wrote, “There are 70,000 arrests a year in the city of Baltimore. When I policed, 20,000 of those happened in the district I policed. The population of the Eastern District is less than

45,000. That’s a lot of lockups.” Nearly one for every two residents. The department paid for arrests, and it got them.

This may seem nonsensical, even counterproductive, yet arresting light-less bikers had its purpose. While it might not seem among the Eastern District’s most pressing problems, many cyclists out in the middle of the night without identification were up to no good. By locking up 26 cyclists, the record-setting officer also took some drugs off the street.

The pitfalls of arrest quotas come into sharper relief with Moskos’ account of the trade-offs faced by a cop chasing down a drug suspect. During Moskos’ time in uniform, drug charges in Baltimore couldn’t be prosecuted unless an officer maintained constant sight of the drugs, a fact well-known to suspects, who will often throw down their drugs when fleeing. The pursuing officer will have to choose between keeping an eye on the drugs and actually arresting the suspect. While found drugs are critical to prosecution, police are judged on arrest statistics, not conviction rates. Officers generally follow the suspect rather than pausing to scoop up the evidence, all the while knowing that the prosecution will fail as a result. But the arrest will still be good.

Eventually, at least in Baltimore, the misalignment of arrest quotas with the overall goal of keeping the peace caused the arrangement to break down. When the Baltimore murder count reached new heights in June 2007, then-commissioner Leonard Hamm was held accountable for the lack of progress in lowering crime rates—despite the astronomical arrest rate—and forced to resign.

Hidden Policing

The objectives of policing are a lot murkier than those of a for-profit company, which are, at least to a first approximation, to make money. The stated mission of the Baltimore City police force is to “protect and preserve life, protect property, understand and serve the needs of the city’s neighborhoods, and to improve the quality of life of our community.”

There’s a lot involved in keeping the peace. Lowering the murder rate, clearing 911 calls, and reducing the supply of crack cocaine may contribute to the broader objectives of policing, but so do many other, hard-to-observe and harder-to-quantify aspects of the job. For instance, after politely settling down a group of young men sitting on a front stoop drinking malt liquor and blasting a boom box (only one of them carrying ID) Moskos’ partner commented that it “pisses me off … now they respect me more … because I wasn’t a dick. Would I be doing a better job if I locked them up? But I don’t get any credit for good policing.”

Moskos’ partner’s idea of “good policing” highlights once again the problem of motivating a multitasking police officer, but with a twist. The officer himself is aggravated by the fact that so much of what police do can’t be measured at all. Moskos’ partner was clearly doing his job, but in no quantifiable way. It’s hard to measure something that never happens. From the perspective of a commissioner guided by monthly crime reports, the lack of criminal activity might be the result of good policing as defined by the patrolman. After all, clearing the corner probably meant one less call to 911—but fewer emergency calls to 911 might also be a consequence of a rainy night, or a cold snap that kept would be criminals indoors, or improved economic conditions in the district. Who’s to say the cop didn’t sit in his warm patrol car under a bridge somewhere, as even Moskos admits that he himself occasionally did?

The fact that so much of policing is invisible to a desk-bound sergeant leaves each individual officer with enormous discretion that can be used in lots of ways: to slack off, to boost his stats, or to keep the peace. Even in the high-crime Eastern District, most cops patrol solo, so there isn’t even another officer to bear witness to good (or bad) behavior. On any given shift, an officer can decide to focus on traffic citations, bike arrests, or busting drug corners. He can let off minor offenders with a warning, or place them under arrest.

One of Moskos’ fellow officers described the way he flaunted this power in dealing with loiterers: “Sometimes I’ll flip a quarter. Tails, he goes to jail, and heads, he doesn’t. They’ll be going, ‘Heads! Yeeeah!’ ” Does anyone ever complain when the coin comes up tails? Apparently not—everyone knows that for minor arrests, they’re at the policeman’s mercy, and better not to endanger a system where you have at least a 50-50 chance of going free rather than none at all.

Whereas arrests for minor crimes are all a matter of discretion, catching violent felons also involves a lot of luck. An officer can’t set out on a shift with the intention of bringing in an armed robber or a murderer. He has to stumble upon one. And absent an obvious suspect, the case then just gets handed over to a detective.

If so much of good policing is invisible—such as defusing a potentially dangerous confrontation—and making arrests involves a mixture of luck and stretching police discretion to stop and frisk errant cyclists and loiterers, why build a system based on arrest quotas? Because it’s still the best you’ve got. Given the teamwork involved in peacekeeping, you can’t reward individual officers for the dog that fails to bark. It encourages them to push criminals and crimes onto someone else’s shift or into another precinct. It may be better to have a lot of bad arrests than no arrests at all.

What saves the system from complete collapse is that many police care about more than just juking, or inflating, their stats. After a few years, many officers get tired of policing “cowboy style” and come to see arrests as a sign of failed policing. If they were doing the job right, there wouldn’t be so much crime in the first place. Among the cops who don’t put up decent arrest stats, some are surely lazy and others burned out, but many are probably excellent police. You just can’t see it in the numbers.

Good thing, then, that while arrests are encouraged and rewarded via promotion and overtime pay, the incentives are pretty weak. If you just stay out of trouble and make an arrest now and then, no one gives you too hard a time. The older cops who have left their cowboy policing days behind them do just fine. If this weren’t the case, there might not be any excellent police in Baltimore at all.

From the book The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Copyright 2013 by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.