An Economic Answer to Police Abuse

Could a Universal Basic Income break the Blue Wall of Silence?


Police are currently searching Baltimore for witnesses in the death of Freddie Gray, the 25 year old man who died after arrest by police that severed his spinal cord. They are searching for witnesses even though they already have six first-hand accounts of the case: the six city police officers that have been suspended, with pay, for involvement in the arrest and detention of Mr. Gray. That the city must search for even more accounts of the incident is completely unremarkable here, when in other cases six witnesses would be a prosecutor’s dream. Though this reasoning will not be explicit, the city must look for other accounts because police testimony in cases of wrongdoing are unreliable, if existent at all.

Thanks to the phenomenon known as the Blue Wall of Silence — where police officers refuse to report or confirm colleague’s misconduct — the six witnesses will speak with one narrative: the police are not at fault. Loyalty to fellow officers comes before justice, comes before the public they have sworn to serve.

But is it really loyalty that holds the wall together? Accounts from Baltimore and across the country suggest that it’s more than kinship that keeps police misconduct from the light of day. It’s employment.

Police are told by their supervisors that snitching will make their jobs very uncomfortable, or cease to exist entirely. For the police that testify despite the threats, they can expect significant harassment and abuse. Officer Joe Crystal, of the same Baltimore police, was passed over for a transfer, found a dead rat on his car, and experienced extended verbal and written threats from supervisors and colleagues…as a result of reporting a police beating of a drug suspect. Crystal, and Baltimore, is not unique: you’ll find the same risks in New York, Chicago, or really anywhere police face serious allegations. The motivation given to officers isn’t that they need to be loyal for the sake of loyalty: it’s that they need to be loyal for their own sake.

Police might also hesitate to report misconduct because they want justice, but also want their fellow officers to keep their jobs. They know a colleague might have made a mistake, but is it a mistake that’s worth a friend’s livelihood? The income that supports their family? They can surely imagine the cost of not only losing a job, but credibility for an entire specialized career.

After all, policing is not simply a public service — it is first, and foremost, a job. Like any, its longevity and quality is a matter, fundamentally, of self-interest. In cases of wrongdoing where police have abused or killed a member of the public, these competing interests come to be fundamentally opposed. Thanks to human nature, and this industry based specifically on protection, we shouldn’t be surprised that police protect their own.

So how could we reconcile these competing ends? The usual response is to tell police to care more about others: to train them in tolerance, teach respect, to imbue the profession with a tradition of justice and honor. We can debate the current efforts on this front, but I don’t think there are strong examples of success, and that’s usually where the discussion stops.

A more radical and transformative suggestion is to decrease the connection from policing to economic self-interest: to make it more of a calling than a job; to make leaving the force a personal choice rather than a choice for poverty.

All this is possible with a universal basic income, also known as UBI. Broadly speaking, under a UBI scheme everyone receives an income from the government that is sufficient for a basic standard of living — individuals can earn more themselves from employment, but their survival is not linked to that employment. They are free to pursue work and projects that matter to them: economic necessity is decoupled from moral and personal desires.

Consider the case of Freddie Gray if our police (and everyone else) in society had the assurance of a UBI. The six police officers would be six witnesses that work on the force, perhaps, because they want to serve and protect. They would have the assurance that losing their jobs from “snitching” against a colleague would not be the end of the world: they would still have money for food, for shelter, for health care. They could willingly leave the force instead of face abuse, due to the same guarantees. They would know that their colleague that used too much force on Mr. Gray would lose their job — and perhaps face further sanction — but would not be left in total ruin.

With UBI, police would not have to choose between jobs and justice; neither would the prison guard unions we currently see defending members from allegations of horrific abuse, beatings, and sexual assaults in our nation’s prisons. Nor, I think, would there be such difficulty getting members of the defense community to report torture or killing of civilians.

Yes: in each of these cases there is a camaraderie that is independent of compensation. Still, offering an alternative way out — a path that includes justice and security — would start to prevent police abuses in the first place, would ensure impunity isn’t the expectation.

UBI could begin to break down those great walls of silence. Remove the mortar. Take the bricks to build something new, something better. Of course, at least at this point, talking about UBI as a solution to police abuse is like shouting in to the wind.

But with enough shouting, perhaps, we can create a breeze of our own.

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