Why Rules Bend

From 1992 to 2008, nearly 2,000 New York Police Department officers were arrested, according to the department’s own annual reports of the Internal Affairs Bureau, an average of 119 a year.  The rarely seen internal reports were obtained last month by the New York Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Law. They show that the number of tips logged each year by Internal Affairs has tripled since 1992. … The number of investigations pursued over the same period has dropped by more than half. … “These reports depict a department that, in the mid-1990s, was candid about its anticorruption work,” said Mr. Dunn, of the civil liberties union. “The recent reports, by contrast, reveal almost nothing, signaling an N.Y.P.D. that seems unwilling to confront corruption.”

More here.  An obvious enabler of police corruption is the fact that internal affairs units, tasked with exposing corruption, usually report to the same police chief that would be embarrassed by such exposure, and who may also be corrupt.  An obvious solution is to make internal affairs more independent, e.g., reporting directly to a city council or even a governor.  In the US the FBI sometimes serves in this role, though rarely at the request of local governments, and within the FBI its internal affairs still reports to FBI’s chief.  Why don’t more governments create independent agencies to investigate corruption, to assure citizens that corruption is not tolerated?

This is an example of a more general puzzle: why do our rules allow so much rule-bending?

Gains to rule bending could be greatly reduced via social norms with very clear simple rules. … [But] both complex broad incest rules and allowing sorcery complaints greatly increase the scope for gains to large rule-bending [forager] brains, and suggest that we tend to prefer to allow such scope.

The degree of allowed rule bending may result from a balance of two opposing forces.  On the one hand, many folks benefit from bendable rules, e.g., the well connected, powerful, clever, and articulate.  If you publicly oppose such rules, e.g., by proposing independent corruption police, you signal that you are not as well-connected, clever, etc., as others, and you risk retaliation from those who now benefit.

On the other hand, many lose from bendable rules, and might be roused into self-righteous indignation to show their support for changes that affirm traditional egalitarian norms.  Furthermore, more distant communities may well think less of this community if it becomes widely know as especially lax about standard norms.  Consider the reputation of especially corrupt nations, cities, or corporation.

So rule bending is at risk if it becomes too obvious that distant outsiders can see it, and if losing insiders can coordinate enough to clearly identify and target its enablers, such as non-independent internal affairs.  But if rule bending insiders can muddy the waters, and raise credible doubts about whether any particular arrangement promotes rule bending, they may prevent such coordination.  The fact that police internal affairs units remain bendable shows just how easy it is to muddy such waters.

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  • tom

    We don’t fully enforce every rule that Internal Affairs can enforce because the result would be chaos. A department of any kind cannot function at all when there are many people who oppose its legitimate efforts to fulfill its stated purpose (arresting people, keeping peace) and (b) there are rules that when followed literally could allow those people to interfere with normal working of the department.

    You ignore that many many complaints are false and that false complaints have a huge cost in time, reputation, and money. This isn’t hypothetical. NYC and LA have long been cursed with having huge staffs following up baseless complaints. And LA has been cursed by having overly-intrusive financial disclosure rules prevent normal hiring for some branches involved in street work.

    More broadly, you need to learn more about the criminal justice system. Your comments here and your comments a few weeks ago about the death penalty, etc…, show that you have an uninformed anti-authoritarian streak when it comes to police and prosecutors and the criminal justice system. It would be great if you could have an informed anti-authoritarian streak. Policing and prosecution aren’t just subjects for “insider/outsider” comments; cops and DAs really do arrest and convict a lot of people who commit crimes and a lot of people who should be locked up.

    • Anonymous

      If laws can’t or shouldn’t be enforced, get rid of them! That way it’s out in the open.

  • Ed

    On a similar note to the previous poster, we may want our rules to be pliant for perfectly legitimate reasons. Suppose that you are someone who opposes torture, but in a ticking time bomb scenario (e.g. if someone has been captured who knows the location of a bomb that is going to blow up New Delhi and is unlikely to tell the police where it is without torture) would be ok with it. You don’t want a firm rule against torture, but you also don’t want to give it official sanction in the belief that this would allow it to become routine. The best strategy is to make torture illegal, wit the expectation that it will not be enforced in cases where common sense indicates that torture was justified.

    Of course, one could opt for a fir rule that spells out exceptions for ticking-time-bomb scenarios, but if you have more faith in the common sense of your fellow citizens than in your ability to spell out precisely every relevant exception, the bendy rule is better.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I actually expect in the ticking nuke scenario people would violate the rules even if they correctly expected to be punished. In practice the last U.S administration (and the current one, for all we know at the moment) went to such lengths merely to encourage detainees to give up bogus info (which their interrogators wanted to hear), in the correct expectation that most would receive no punishment.

      I have stated elsewhere that I think torture actually is effective in obtaining good information, as shown both by the French in Algeria and the military dictatorship ruling the country today. However, I don’t think our own government is competent to do so.

      • Ian

        … torture actually is effective in obtaining good information, as shown both by the French in Algeria …

        More information would be nice. The first few hits for “torture study” seem to discourage that train of thought.

  • Douglas Knight

    Did the NYPD corruption go up or down? I would expect complaints to be negatively correlated with corruption – both corruption of the police and integrity of internal affairs should encourage complaints.

  • Matt Prather

    tom and Ed both brought up this key point, of which Mr. Hanson is certainly aware (or else he has missed something obvious):

    Cops bend rules but, in general, this rule-bending actually helps the community because they are “breaking” a rule in order to stop, deter, or prevent harmful crime. A cop uses his moral judgement about the law and, in general, knows the difference between right and wrong in breaking / bending the law.

    But what tom and Ed must acknowledge is:

    When there is an exception to the general rules, and there is conflict of interest that prevents correction, then the system, by design, has been tainted with corruption.

    • tim

      Do you really think most rule-bending by cops is to help the community, not to help the cops? Most people bend or break rules to get ahead – I doubt police officers are any different. Maybe it’s just because I live in a city with rampant police corruption and abuse, but I see law enforcement as extraordinarily average in every respect (except restraint).

      In any case, rule-bending to help the community is much less likely to result in a complaint to IA than rule-bending for personal gain or convenience.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    tom, ed, Matt, you seem to be reacting to the phrase “rule bending” and not to what I’ve said I mean by that phrase in the prior posts in this sequence. I don’t mean following the formal letter of a law.

  • tom

    Robin, you said that this rule bending system benefits the elites. I say the rule bending is a defense against elites who pretend that they can create a system with rules that eliminate chances for criminality and the improper use of discretion. You say that an independent inspector general-type position is an “obvious” solution to police corruption. I say that it isn’t, and that it’s just as likely an obvious way to cripple an organization.

    I think you think there is a lot of low-hanging fruit here. But the current situation is a balancing between too many cops being corrupt or breaking rules to catch criminals, on the one hand, and cops not being able to do their jobs without fear of years-long investigations and panels and black marks even if they are in the right. And the people on the zero-tolerance for corruption side are often on the side that believes the police should do less real policing and see this as a way to accomplish that goal.

    • PaulG

      From Robin’s recent response it seems obvious that he is talking about rules in the sense of what people find agreeable. I imagine that Hanson would be more likely to consider a cop pulling over someone driving 66mph in a 65mph zone out of boredom to be “rule-bending” than a cop who, even upon explicit instruction from superiors or the law, chooses to ignore people who drive 66 in a 65 zone because the socially accepted “rule” is that people will drive at or slightly above the de jure speed limit and that police officers will not hassle people for minor violations.

  • Roger

    Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen! The gremlins of Sitemeter and Gravatar have let me through to Overcoming Bias and the comments in seconds rather than minutes.

    • Tyrrell_McAllister

      FWIW, I never have a problem getting through. It may be something at your end.

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