Title: Labor Mobility and the Problems of Modern Policing

Abstract: Modern policing is characterized by multiple well-understood pathologies. As scholars have shown, police officers engage in a significant amount of illegal violence and abusive behavior, particularly against people of color. Attempts to discipline or fire the responsible officers often run aground on the substantial job protections written into police labor contracts and state statute. A far less-understood characteristic of modern policing, in contrast, is the stasis of its labor force. In this paper, we assemble a dataset of police employment in the State of Illinois from public records requests. We analyze those data to understand the extent and nature of labor mobility among law enforcement officers. As we document, labor mobility in this context is quite low. By and large, officers remain in one job until retirement. In addition, the superior officer corps in any given department are drawn almost exclusively from police who have served their entire career in that department. The reasons are a combination of economic and legal factors, ranging from geographic monopolies to statutory and collectively bargained rules over rank, seniority, and pensions. Policing is like a sports league, if you removed trades and free agency and left only the draft in place.

Our thesis is that these two sets of phenomena—the pathologies of police accountability and the low labor mobility of police officers—are intimately related. Low labor mobility leads to sclerosis in police departments, cutting them off from new ideas and perspectives. In turn, the lack of labor mobility makes it all the more important for police officers to hold onto the jobs they have. This leads them to bargain and lobby for extensive workplace protections, which exacerbate the problem of police misconduct. To be sure, there may be some advantages to low police labor mobility. But we have doubts that those benefits outweigh the substantial costs. And even if they do, there are ways to preserve the benefits of job stability without absorbing the harms of stagnation, as we suggest at the paper’s close.


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