The Power of Good Government: Crime Fighting

Matt Yglesias has a short post highlighting the rapid metamorphosis of the LAPD from a hotbed of corruption and vigilantism into one of the most effective police forces in America. The full article from the New York Times (what happened to the LA Times?) is here. Much of the story is about the leadership of William J. Bratton, who previously held the same job in New York:

Mr. Bratton was hired in 2002 by James K. Hahn, then the mayor, forcing out a sitting police chief — Bernard Parks — to try to get the department stabilized. “Bratton spent most of his time talking about what needed to be done to reform the L.A.P.D. and improve its image,” Mr. Hahn said of their interview. “He also said, ‘I can bring crime down in your city by 25 percent, and if not I’ll resign.’ That was an offer I could not refuse.”

Having been born and raised on the outskirts of Long Beach, I find it quite inspiring that an institution like the LAPD can be transformed so rapidly and so thoroughly through the sheer unadulterated power of good leadership and intelligent, well designed policy implementation. While public servants often despair that our missions are challenging, constantly shifting, and hard to measure, I think it is safe to say that few agencies face those obstacles to the degree of the LAPD.

This example also illustrates the power of ideas; I’ve often said you could make an awesome career without a single original idea, simply identifying, stealing, and implementing good ideas from other parts of government like a Chinese Apple Store. As bureaucrats we often talk a good game about “benchmarking” and “best practices” without really investing the time and energy to elegantly and intelligently deploy them. This sort of case study is a great reason to refocus our attention on this unsung area of wonkery.

Los Angeles isn’t the only place making big innovations in crime fighting: In his outstanding manifesto, “When Brute Force Fails” on applying an economic, incentives framework to crime fighting, Mark Kleiman highlights steps being taken in Hawaii to reduce crime and cost simultaneously. It’s a valuable and inspiring message about how budget cuts can spur positive outcomes for enterprising and creative public servants. We’re all familiar with the sayings about Crisis being Danger + Opportunity*; it’s heartening to see a clear, powerful example of someone seizing that opportunity.

*not true, and there is a lesson there about convenient platitudes.

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