Every year, 50 million Americans come into contact with the police at least once, according to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About half of them are pulled over in a car that they're driving (19 million), or in which they are a passenger (6 million). Another 8 million are involved in a car accident. Nine million more said that they called the police about a non-crime. Among the most common reasons for those calls? More traffic accidents.
Statistically speaking, then, most police interaction with civilians involves driving around in cars talking to other people driving around in cars. Such a job has no obvious requirement that officers bedeck themselves in cutting-edge weaponry, which inevitably leads to gratuitous violence.
Many local governments make the situation even worse by forcing cops to double as tax agents. A Police Executive Research Forum report on St. Louis law enforcement found that local governments within the county were using police to “plug revenue gaps” by running up the number of traffic citations, which coincided with many low-level arrests. As one St. Louis County resident told the report’s authors: “It’s no secret that a lot of these municipal police officers are only supposed to be revenue drivers for their cities.”
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The roles of warrior cop, traffic patroller, and tax collector are bound up in a way that practically guarantees a large number of violent encounters between armed police and civilians. The United States has about 40 percent more police officers per capita than England or Australia, but adjusted for population, U.S. law enforcement kills 20 to 100 times more people.
The obvious solution: Unbundle this unholy mess. Local governments should make themselves less dependent on traffic citations, which would automatically reduce the number of potentially dangerous interactions between scared civilians and heavily armed officers. Next, carve out a separate job category for pure traffic patrollers. The economist Alex Tabarrok (a police-unbundling advocate) points to Highways England, which employs British traffic officers—distinct from law enforcement—who drive around in black and yellow livery, surveilling the streets.
Police are also forced to be ersatz social workers. Several studies indicate that 10 to 20 percent of all U.S. police encounters with the public involve people showing signs of mental illness or alcoholism, and one in four people with mental disorders has reportedly been arrested. Crisis-intervention training for cops is more common than it once was, but stories abound of the police shooting and killing schizophrenic or mentally disabled people.
Finally, police serve as “frontline workers for urban homelessness,” says Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA. “A person who is unhoused interacts constantly with the police. But officers aren’t adequately trained to deal with the issues that those people are dealing with.” Cash-strapped cities should spend money on homelessness directly, rather than funding a police unit whose seventh job is homelessness intervention.