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How the NYPD Became the CIA: The (Opportunity) Costs of Security

One of the curious sociological trends of the last twenty years has been the continuous drop in violent crime across America. Even during the economic downturn, crime didn't increase, as some pundits predicted. (My favorite prediction came from trained-sociologist/NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, who predicted a crime wave if the NFL didn’t return. Unfortunately, we couldn’t test his prediction.)

Sociologists point to a number of factors to explain the decrease: harsher sentencing guidelines, stricter penalties for lesser crimes, demographics, gun control laws, and even abortion or lead paint. Because of the complicated subject matter, we’ll probably never be able to link the decline to one specific cause.

Some of the credit, as well, must go to the police forces across America. Solving and preventing crimes has to have some effect. If the police helped lower the crime rate, American politicians could argue the American people got a good return on their investment.

Of course, not all police funding is created equal. Following 9/11, in an effort to defeat Al Qaeda, police departments across America purchased gobs of vehicles, weapons and gear under the guise of “counter-terrorism protection”, including up-armored vehicles, automatic weapons, CCTV cameras and basically anything they wanted. Some of this counter-terrorism spending might have had the unintended consequence of helping police fight ordinary, non-terrorist crime.

But a lot of it probably did nothing except waste money. For example, the NYPD’s Intelligence Unit, and their controversial, “Demographics” unit, which made the news last year in two different investigative reports. Today, I want to run the numbers to see the opportunity costs--in other words, other ways we could have spent the money that might have been effective--for the NYPD Demographics Unit.

First, let’s understand the scale of the organization. According to the AP, the NYPD Intelligence Unit had a budget of $62 million in 2012, of which the Demographics Unit was a major part. It also doesn’t get audited by the New York City Comptroller Office. Apparently, the NYPD Intelligence Unit operates in eleven foreign cities, and countless geographies within the U.S. outside of New York City.

Next, let’s try to define the best possible benefits of this program, as unrealistic as they may be. As I did last time, I am giving the Demographics Unit a huge benefit of the doubt. According to New York City, the NYPD Demographics unit helped break up 14 different terror attacks since 9/11. The closest anyone came to success was Faisel Shahzad attempting to use a car bomb in Time Square. So let’s make these assumptions:

    Number of attacks prevented since 9/11: 14

    Average dead per attack: 50

    Average life years lost per victim: 40

This means that the NYPD Demographics Unit saved--at the upper bounds of unrealistic optimism--potentially 700 citizens, or 32,000 life years (life years is the expected number of years a citizen is expected to live; or average life expectancy minus current age; I’ve estimated forty years per victim) in terror attacks since 9/11. For this analysis--this is what I mean by benefit of the doubt--we are going to assume the NYPD Demographics Unit helped avert every single terror attack.

Knowing that the NYPD Intelligence Unit had a budget of $62 million, and estimating that the demographics unit is only about half of that budget--a guess on my part--by my calculations, New York City has spent roughly $300 million on the Demographics unit alone since 9/11. If the unit saved 700 people as I calculated, that means it spent roughly $400,000 per life saved, or $10,000 per life year saved.

So what are the opportunity costs of the NYPD Demographics Unit? Well, the time of the officers serving and the costs to run its operations. Even though the NYPD has fantastic resources, it still has limits. So what if, instead of establishing the Demographics Unit, the NYPD focused on discouraging open air drug markets, establishing community policing programs, and conducting increased gang intervention? What if the NYPD focused on organized crime or financial wrong doing? What if they had simply put more cops on the street to go on patrol? Those different uses of men and money are the foregone opportunity costs of setting up the NYPD Demographics Unit.

The biggest opportunity is clearly preventing homicides. Since 9/11, New York City has seen 6,500 murders. Imagine if, instead of combating the relatively rare phenomenon of terrorism, New York City had plowed that $300 million into solving and preventing murders. If New York had prevented about 12% of all the murders since 9/11, then it shouldn’t have spent the money on counter-terrorism.

Or imagine if New York City plowed that $300 million into true rehabilitation efforts. One of the sad facts of American “justice” is that recidivism--committing a crime after you’ve already been convicted and released--is extraordinarily high, at 67%. Why? Most Americans shun the Christian virtue of forgiveness and refuse to hire or support criminals who have paid their debt to society. Imagine if that $300 million had gone into supporting and helping lower the recidivism rate in New York City, through training and job aid programs. You might actually save money...

But here’s the thing: neither of those two opportunity costs really matter. In reality, the NYPD Demographics Unit hasn’t been credited with helping to stop a single terror attack since 9/11.

Not. A. Single. One.

Many of the cases the NYPD cited above never even approached feasibility. For instance, one terrorist wanted to cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. How he planned to attach enough explosives without attracting attention is unclear. Indeed, the likelihood he would have even made it to the bridge is doubtful.

So the break-even isn’t 12% of murders prevented...its simply saving one. If the NYPD could have saved even one additional life by not having the Intelligence Unit, than it would have been better to spend the money on stopping crime. That’s right, all that money and time spent on the demographics unit is almost completely wasted.

One comment

I missed this type of posts. Have you considered comparing policework to counterinsurgency?