Why Don’t the Police Specialize?

Specialization in policing is inevitable and that’s a good thing

At the 1949 meeting of the NFL owners, the league was consumed with merger talks. The upstart All-American Football Conference was eating into the NFL’s market share in a market which itself was small and dwindling. Trapped in the sea ice with an angry polar bear, the owners conducted a flurry of business, including unanimously passing a radical change to the game of professional football. Only the owners had no idea at the time how profound the effects would be. Take a little stroll with me into the minutiae of pro football, it’s worth the walk.

Up until 1948, NFL football had ascetic rules about when a player could come off the field for a substitute. The old answer was almost never—you limped around the field on your broken limb, playing offense and defense, and if you left the field of play, you essentially could not return. In today’s age of professional sports where gangs of stretcher-bearers carry writhing players to the sideline in an unending assembly line—only to watch them bound back on the field of play when convenient—the idea is a total anachronism.  The old idea was that football was about turning boys into men, teaching them resilience and grit, to stay on the field and battle through. In addition to being a recipe for enduring trauma and cumulative head injuries, that makes for a really boring, low-scoring game. The NFL then as now was about profit-seeking, and then as now any rule changes with positive, pro-social consequences was due more to luck than benevolence. The radically loosened substitution rules did juice up the game, with offensive and defensive specialists emerging on both sides of the ball, creating a faster, more nuanced game, more scoring, and most importantly, loads more revenue. And after 25 years of less than one million dollars in annual League-wide revenue, the NFL started to become what it is today, for better or worse.

Now, the story I just told you is one of the oldest in the land, one you probably heard in a more boring way in high school about the creation of the assembly line to build the Ford Model T. Specialization is the cornerstone of modern economics. But specialization is not only a neoliberal construct designed by our conglomerates to oppress us, it is also and quite famously the cornerstone of socialism. “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” said Karl Marx in 1875. Now, I was lead to believe that this meant: work as hard as you are able and take only what you need.  But it doesn’t, of course, mean that because then it would read “from each according to their endurance” to each blah, blah, blah or some such. Ability is all about specialization. Perhaps the failure of communism then was in exactly this misreading, perhaps the intentional result of a deep fear of specialization resulting in the individualization of the grey mass of the proletariat. And so too, my friends, does the grey mass of the policing proletariat cry out for specialization.

So, from Karl Marx, I would like to turn to the adjacent topic of law enforcement. The idea here is that in these still early days of the 21st century it is utterly striking that the police remain perhaps the only example of a total lack of specialization in any professional occupation. In my constant and ongoing search for the perfect metaphor I searched in vain for another example and have utterly failed. Perhaps only the clergy is similarly a jack of all trades. The military, which the ideologically pro-police fetishize, has long moved away from troopers as cannon-fodder to specialists. Indeed, the US military has long-called rank and file soldiers in the army ‘specialist’. And this is not a metaphor--that is a soldier’s actual rank, their title. Prior to 2005, Specialist (or E-4) was a promotion rank from private first class. But beginning in 2005, a person who had acquired specific job skills or completed sufficient formal education could enter the army as a specialist, because they were already prepared to specialize. Which is obviously important to the military.

Your local law enforcement agency, your police, by and large, do not specialize.  Sure, there are managers—sergeants and precinct commanders. And sure there are details, traffic detail, robbery-homicide, and such. And, of course, there is SWAT, because what would TV do without SWAT? But the reality is that most police officers perform undifferentiated duties. Perhaps most distressingly, most law enforcement does not differentiate who responds to calls for service by assigning each call to the officer on the street best trained to respond. And the over-riding lesson each receives is also undifferentiated, which is how to take command of a difficult situation. An important skill to be sure, but not the most important skill in every situation.

A prediction

There is no way this business model for American policing can withstand the pressures of specialization. Market forces rule, even if the business is a monopoly and a public good (theoretically) like policing. Change comes slow to these businesses but it comes inevitably. The list of wolves at this particular door is exceedingly long, but these are three that I think will have the most impact. And I think they are surprising.

Some predictions:

1.       Police initiated interactions with the public through traffic stops will decline. Technologically regulated traffic and self-driving cars and trucks are coming and will dramatically change how police police. By my count, something around HALF of all police-public interactions are traffic stops[1]. If you want to understand modern American policing, you have to focus on traffic because that’s where the resources are being deployed. On average, policing today remains much more CHiPs and Adam-12 than SWAT or CSI. Roads around the world are increasingly regulated by technology (because revenues) and while the forces for freedom are currently winning that battle in the US, they won’t for long once the cars themselves are automated. Either way, change is coming.

2.       Consumer-driven demand for policing is subject to changing tastes. America is growing older, wealthier, and more diverse and those changes will have profound impacts on how we allow ourselves to be policed. Speaking of anachronisms, today’s preference for aggressive, militarized police already seems anachronistic and that feeling will increase into mid-21st century America because the consumer of policing will demand it. The civilizing forces of diversity, wealth, and old age are too strong. I have more to say on this, but the key is that when you call the police, you expect a certain deference that’s very different from what is expected when the police call on you. And the trend is toward police mainly being deployed to serve consumers demanding services rather than police officers supplying it based on their own demand. Older, richer people expect more deference and demand more services. Diverse populations expect tolerance. Plus, for the reasons stated above and below, the opportunities for police to initiate interactions will decline. The balance will shift toward more consumer-driven calls for service over police initiated interactions. Something has to give.

3.       Technology. Boy is there a lot to say about this. But the headline is that technology is coming to policing, And this will force police to specialize. I have a pet theory that I can’t find data to test that says that the reason why some cities experienced huge crime declines in the last 30 years and some cities did not is that wealthier cities can employ all kinds of analytic, logistical, and social service supports for every pair of boots on the ground and poorer cities cannot. That’s it, that’s the thesis.

But those technological forces that use analytics to support investigations and deployments are accelerating, not slowing. Crucially, that will affect who is hired on to the force. If you are a City Councilor or Mayor and your choice is between hiring a sworn officer who gets loads of overtime and who can be injured physically and emotionally as part of their duties and an analyst who works 40 hours a week behind a computer—and they are equally effective at preventing crime—it is an easy choice.

I wrote an op-ed more than a decade ago about the impending Age of Scientific Policing, and I think the ideas are still right, but I underestimated how enormous the obstacles of monopoly and police unions would be. I still think the changes are inevitable.

Musical Interlude

Bruce Springsteen and Jack Antonoff. Very cool. And hey, yesterday was my wedding anniversary so this not so long-distance dedication goes out to you Caterina.

Yeah, I wanna find tomorrow

With a girl like you


I read very few recent books. I suppose it is my distant Nebraska roots (let’s go Doane, Nebraska!), but I want to know what is going to stand the test of time or the opportunity cost seems too high relative to my perceived risk. I have (another) pet theory that I am not alone in this predilection and that publishers who put less and less information on the book jacket are pushing readers away. Anyway, perhaps in honor of the new administration I was drawn to John Kenneth Galbraith’s Ambassador Journal this month, published just 55 years ago. JBG as he calls himself, was an uber Harvard economist and was both uber Harvard and uber economicus. He recounts the first days of the JFK administration and his diary of his time as ambassador to India. What’s interesting here is that six decades ago, the idea of public service as a pinnacle achievement was still dominant, evidenced by the decampment of what appears to be the entire Harvard economics faculty to Washington to serve the New Frontier.  There is a spirit of optimism, at least within JBG, that seems entirely absent from modern politics, and entirely out of step with the traditional notions of a disengaged elite. And boy did they take their elitism seriously. And boy did they do a lot of partying for a bunch of rather elderly fellas. Anyway, it is always worth the effort to peak into the minds of government leaders from the relatively recent past, and consider what changed for better and worse. The better is obvious from a world where diversity meant you taught at Princeton, the worse takes a little more digging. But the idea of government as civil service instead of bureaucrat is worth chewing on.

[1] On December 13, 2020, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released “Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2018 – Statistical Tables.” I estimate half of all contacts are police stops by adding the accident row plus the driver during a traffic stop row plus the passenger row in the table above.