As workers gain seniority, they often get more control over where they work. Sometimes, though, this means the best workers get to take the least demanding jobs. A new working paper, released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, explores this tendency as it applies to police.

The paper answers three questions. How strongly do senior officers prefer working in lower-crime neighborhoods? How would a neighborhood’s crime rate change if you replaced less-experienced officers with different cops who were more experienced? And what reforms could put good officers in the places they’re needed most?

The paper uses data from Chicago, where cops in one district can “bid” for open positions in others and the winner will be the most senior officer who wants the job. Positions that can’t be filled this way go to cops just starting out, who don’t get a choice. Similar seniority-based processes exist for officers in more than 100 other cities, and for teachers and doctors, too. Unsurprisingly, the most in-demand districts are the least violent: “officers with 15-30 years of experience self-select into districts with 35 percent less violent crime than those patrolled by the least experienced officers,” the authors write.

What effects does this have on policing and crime? That’s tricky to study. After all, if senior cops deliberately select the safest areas, a simple correlation between officer seniority and neighborhood safety doesn’t tell us anything at all.

To answer the question, the authors turn to some more involved statistical methods. For example, they compare cops who work the same beat and shift but have different levels of seniority. They find that more experienced officers make somewhat fewer arrests—especially for low-level crimes but also for violent offenses. Such cops also use force less. Of course, from this alone, it’s unclear whether we should think senior cops are more effective at deterring crime before it happens, resolving situations, and exercising judgment, or just that they’re less proactive. And this analysis doesn’t measure other ways that experience could have an effect, such as older cops being role models for younger ones.

So to gauge the effect of officer seniority on overall crime rates, the authors use a different technique. Basically, aggregate shifts in the department’s staffing, including retirements, work as a sort of natural experiment—forcing changes to the experience level of police who work each district. These changes can then be connected to changes in crime rates.

From this analysis, the authors conclude that more experienced police do reduce violent crime, with the effect leveling off at about ten years of tenure. If officer seniority were fully equalized across districts, crime would go down 4.6 percent, the paper estimates—because in the current system, the places with the most violent crime are staffed with the cops least effective at reducing it.

In practice, no department can simply tell its most senior and valued offers that they’ll henceforth get the worst assignments. These folks have the option of leaving for safer suburbs, and generally have union representation and protection, too. Older officers nearing retirement may not want to thrust themselves into violent situations more than they need to.

But in its most speculative section, the paper claims to have the ideal solution: a revenue-neutral way to subsidize experienced cops to take the harder jobs, and equalize officer tenure across districts that way, based on a statistical simulation of cops’ preferences and choices. In the simulated alternative, inexperienced officers can get paid less (because they don’t end up in the worst jobs as often), the wage gradient is steeper as officers acquire experience, and picking a safe or violent district has significant consequences. Opt for Jefferson Park, and you’ll lose more than $8,000 a year; go for Englewood, and you’ll get an extra $6,000 or so. While the seniority bidding system would remain, these subsidies would discourage the most experienced cops from hogging all the safest assignments, allowing younger officers a shot at them, provided they’re willing to take the pay hit.

Police in general would actually be a little better-off in this scenario—at least according to the paper’s calculation of their “utility profile”—but of course some would lose out. The authors find, for instance, that black officers’ welfare would improve by $3,000, because they’re more likely to prefer higher-crime districts (and to have those assignments even without a subsidy), while white officers’ welfare would decline $2,000.

If we’re starting from an assumption of revenue neutrality, there’s no way to pay some cops more without paying others less. Realistically, something like this would probably need to be phased in for new hires over time, or take the form of new subsidies rather than a redistribution of existing dollars.

But the basic idea is sound, and it deserves to be tried out in some pilot programs. If experienced police are effective at reducing crime, we should want them in the places they’re needed most, and we should be willing to pay to put them there.

 Photo by Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images


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