Search interesting materials

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Competence in policing

David Montgomery, Sari Horwitz and Marc Fisher have a great story in the Washington Post about how the police tracked down the murderers in Boston. Also see Spencer Ackerman in Wired magazine. On a similar theme, look back at the attack at Times Square in New York.

We in India fare dismally on this. Lacking competence in the police, we repeatedly engage in faulty tradeoffs in security, where police either infringe on the freedom of citizens or resort to brutality against innocent `suspects'. Every time the police quickly solve a case, I worry that they merely tortured some plausible sounding suspect.

Law and order is the most important and most basic public good. Dense urban congregations, which are the essence of modern creative capitalism, are only possible with very high levels of safety. The US is priority #1 for the bad guys, and has had two attacks in 12 years, both of which were followed by outstanding investigations. We in India suffer from thousands of attacks, most of which are never solved. This shows the low capabilities of our law enforcement crew.

We in India go wrong at three levels:

  • Elections have degenerated into competitive subsidy programs; both politicians and voters have stopped focusing on performance of the government on public goods. Left-oriented intellectuals are complicit in this, with an emphasis on inequality and subsidies rather than on public goods. When voters are not focused on public goods, the accountability through elections does not generate feedback loops in favour of better public goods.
  • In this environment, inadequate resources go into public goods, the most important of which is the criminal justice system.
  • Within the criminal justice system, there is little accountability, and we are not seeing feedback loops through which the system is constantly reshaped (within existing budget constraints) towards better performance.
The recent wave of outrage on law and order should ideally help set a new course. See Law and order: Going from outrage to action. Mistreating women is not encoded in our culture or our DNA: it is endogenous to the incentives provided by the criminal justice system. The same Indians behave very differently towards women when placed in alternative criminal justice systems in other countries. If enough voters demand performance from politicians for better law and order, we will get a greater focus on it, in terms of:
  • More top management time. E.g. how many hours per year does the PM work on law and order in Delhi versus how many hours does he spend on NREGA?
  • More money. E.g. how much money do we put into law and order in Delhi versus how much money do we put into NREGA? 
  • More and better people. E.g. how do we get the best and brightest civil servants out of relatively unproductive tasks (subsidies) and into the things that matter (public goods)? How do we increase the staff strength of government in public goods, while cutting the size of government on subsidies? How do we make careers in police, courts and jails more attractive, and careers in education, health and welfare programs less interesting?
  • More analysis. How do we get more research papers on the criminal justice system, and fewer research papers on development economics?


  1. Why pick on education,NREGA and development.....a simple trade off would be make all VIPs pay for their security and use that money for general policing. Why does Mukesh Ambani need Z security at our expense?
    I am no economist, but surely we are subsidising rich businessmen a bit more than required to incentivise businesses...air conditioned deisel Innova with one passenger, is my pet peeve.

    1. 1) It is not a simple tradeoff.
      2) The govt budget is a fixed number. If you talk about priorities, how will resources be adequately directed?
      3) The problems are not because Ambani enjoys Z security. Yes, it may be excessive and/or it is a problem of crony capitalism. But, fixing it does not fix the more gigantic systemic issues. If you intention is to talk about some people being above the law, sure, that is one component one needs to fix. But, its only one issue.

  2. India is not wired up to the extent the US or the UK are,and detection is accordingly much more difficult.The citizens there don't insist on quick detection which is likely to implicate innocents,nor do they complain of intelligence failure because the FBI could not prevent the attack despite warning about one of the terrorists involved.

    1. They do insist and they do complain. The authorities have a much better PR mechanism as well as the sensitivity, proactive attitude and expertise to communicate multiple times during the day on what progress has or has not been made. And the investigation process is also far more reliable. Secondly, calling it an intelligence failure is a bit naive and excessive, I think, given that the individual had been screened and found clean before, as per the FBI records. What makes you assume that this was an intelligence failure?

  3. Though, insensitive given the context and sombre happenings, but I just can't stifle a laughter at this last sentence of yours:

    "How do we get more research papers on the criminal justice system, and fewer research papers on development economics?"

    Dr, you really must be hating dev econ!


    P.S: They have got an entire subject dedicated to it- Sociology!!! :)

    1. Yes, it bothers me that the intellectuals are missing in action on the things that matter. Part of the problem is that a good chunk of the human capital has got diverted into a bunch of less important things.

  4. A key issue is the that a good part security agencies personnel are not there because of their competencies but the quantum of money that is being paid! The other aspect is, as rightly pointed out, the absence of accountability. There is absence of credible data on the quantum of crimes solved and above all conviction obtained. This is where the judicial system has also failed in the country.


Please note: Comments are moderated. Only civilised conversation is permitted on this blog. Criticism is perfectly okay; uncivilised language is not. We delete any comment which is spam, has personal attacks against anyone, or uses foul language. We delete any comment which does not contribute to the intellectual discussion about the blog article in question.

LaTeX mathematics works. This means that if you want to say $10 you have to say \$10.