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Fishkind Conversations: The Economics Of Police Reform

Protesters kneel in front of Orlando City Hall. Thursday, 06/04/20 . Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE
Protesters kneel in front of Orlando City Hall. Thursday, 06/04/20 . Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE

As cities and counties across Florida sign their budgets for the fiscal year, they face the challenge of the COVID-19 recession and the impact of protests over racial injustice and policing.

Economic analyst Hank Fishkind, president of Fishkind Litigation Services, tells 90.7’s Matthew Peddie that reforming public safety and policing can improve the quality and efficiency of the service. 

Matthew Peddie: The impact of the COVID-19 recession and widespread protests over racial and justice and policing is going to require local governments to revise and reformulate budget plans for the fiscal year and that begins on October 1. Sowhat are some of the economic principles relevant to the situation?

Hank Fishkind: Well, Matthew, consider that public safety in general and policing in particular, are incredibly valuable and vital public goods. But in many ways, they're just like any other good or service, we have a price and we have a quality of service, you know, and since these are public goods, we pay the price through taxes, and we collectively consume the services. Now the recession has cut government revenues and boosted their expenses. And it's obvious that many citizens are very dissatisfied with the quality of the public safety services provided. So this combination of reduced resources and discontented consumers provides the perfect opportunity for reforms that can only improve the quality of the service and efficiency in its provision,

MP: Does that just mean putting more money into some of those other services that law enforcement officers are finding themselves having to respond to?

HF: Yeah, that's exactly right. We want to get the police to focus on the things that they do best. And we need to provide other responses to services. For example, let's talk about homelessness and mental illness. A recent study in Central Florida, Matt, found that we spend $30,000 per year per homeless person on average, for costs for policing and jails and healthcare. But a housing first approach would cost $10,000 per year per person. That saves $20,000 per homeless person per year, and there are about 5000 homeless people across Central Florida, so we're talking about $100 million a year. And that's money that could be diverted, as we said, that could be reoriented and there's lots of successful programs across the country, including one in Seattle that offer good examples of how that could be done, and how those resources could be reoriented.

MP: Some of the things that people talk about or point to as checks and balances like for example, civilian review boards, body cameras, implicit bias training, some of that hasn't been shown to work. Why is that?

HF: Well, again, sticking strictly to the economics, Matthew, in Florida and across the nation, there are some significant institutional obstacles to the reform. You know, in Florida, sheriffs are elected officials, and their budgets and policies are only indirectly governed by the county commissions in the counties they serve. So reforms of the sheriff's department require electoral action. Oversight and accountability are in part governed by collective bargaining contracts and affected by unions, not just elected officials. But all that said, Matthew, budgets and funding: the power of the purse can and must be used much more effectively. And you know, turning back to the basics for a second, public safety and policing are in fact goods we buy. They're vital public goods we all need and we pay for them through our taxes, the quality and the quantity are determined politically through our governments. But as we've discussed, we can and must improve that quality and efficiency of public safety. And we can do so by unbundling the product offering, instead of asking one agency, the police, to respond to a wide array of all kinds of social service needs, without preventing crimes, I mean, they've got to focus on preventing crimes and therefore the resources that are used for all the other social services can be reoriented and we can be much more effective in meeting our society's needs. Matthew.

MP: Hank Fishkind, president of Fishkind Litigation Services- thanks for your time.

HF: Matthew- thank you.