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Institutional Resistance to Police Reform Continues

by Jayson Hawkins

Public scrutiny of police behavior in recent years has mostly failed to bring about substantive change in the way police operate in America. Many causes have been put forward to explain the institutional resistance to change, from racism to police intransigence. A recent paper by Max M. Schanzenbach, a professor of law and economics at Northwestern University, points to both civil service law and union contracts as important factors in the failure of police reform.

One factor that has consequences for who becomes a police officer is the unique combination of pay, job security, standards, and ideological attraction to policing. The average cop makes $74,000 a year, more than $10,000 above the average worker in the public sector. With this pay comes exceptional job security. Police are 85% less likely to lose their job than private sector workers and even 65% less likely than other public sector workers. Most big departments, like New York or Los Angeles, require significant college credit to join, though standards are not as rigid at smaller departments.

These factors combine to attract people with a moderate education and an interest in job security and good pay, but there is also the aspect of an ideological attraction to policing. While this attraction can bring good cops, it is also a key part of the fraternal culture that resists reform, specifically when it comes to disciplining misconduct.

This misconduct is not hard to identify or measure; the problem is institutional resistance to doing anything about it. Schanzenbach’s study shows “bad cops are a serious problem, are identifiable, and are rarely removed or disciplined.”

Schanzenbach asserts that this misconduct does not occur evenly across whole departments. In fact, statistics show “a few officers account for a lot of measured misconduct.”

The paper advocates giving administrators “a freer hand to promote, demote, terminate, and otherwise discipline officers,” as well as a wider ability to rotate and assign officers. This tactic might successfully alter police behavior, but it would also affect the balance of factors that attract people to policing.

The factors identified by Schanzenbach as instrumental in how policing in America works can therefore be both constraints of and avenues toward effective reform. 


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