Willingness to Pay for Police Reform

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(6) 567 –591
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420988310
Willingness to Pay for Police
Zachary A. Powell1 and John L. Worrall2
Consent decrees, authorized by Section 14141 of the 1994 Violent Crime Control
Act, represent one of the most powerful governmental tools used to encourage—
and possibly force—police reform. The consent decree process, however, carries a
significant fiscal burden; in some cases, the cost of police reform inhibits agencies’
cooperation with the decrees. One possible solution to this problem calls for the
creation of a public-supported police reform fund, whose monies are reserved
strictly for consent decrees. Guided by focal concerns theory, this study reports on a
factorial survey experiment used to assess variation across individuals’ willingness to
pay for police reform. Results indicate that the seriousness of a police reform issue
and the agency’s ability to pay for reform act as significant drivers of endorsement of
a police reform fund.
police reform, willingness-to-pay, consent decrees, factorial survey experiment
Public policing is under the microscope more than ever. Botched force encounters,
questionable and even illegal shootings, allegations of implicit and explicit bias,
expanded media coverage, and increased transparency (much of it forced) have all
combined to put agencies on notice that even the mere appearance of impropriety will
be dealt with seriously and swiftly. Criminologists are busily researching trends and
correlates of use-of-force and officer-involved shootings, as evidenced by a surge in
publications on the subject (e.g., Tregle et al., 2019). So significant is the scrutiny that
1California State University, San Bernardino, USA
2The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, USA
Corresponding Author:
Zachary A. Powell, Department of Criminal Justice, College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, California
State University, San Bernardino, 5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino, CA 92407, USA.
Email: Zachary.Powell@csusb.edu
988310CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420988310Criminal Justice Policy ReviewPowell and Worrall
568 Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(6)
police may have even curtailed their enforcement efforts in an attempt to avoid draw-
ing adverse public attention (e.g., Rosenfeld & Wallman, 2019). Policymakers are
exploring various options to force reforms, ranging from the formation of task forces
and oversight boards to personnel changes and even forced federal intervention into
local law enforcement affairs. Concerning the latter, U.S. Justice Department–
mandated consent decrees are among the most significant mechanism used to address
patterns of misbehavior in local law enforcement agencies (Chanin, 2015; Harmon,
2009; Rushin, 2017).
Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994
gives the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) authority to investigate and force reform
within local police agencies that engage in patterns or practices of civil rights viola-
tions. If the DOJ investigates a local agency and finds evidence of impropriety, it will
start by offering technical assistance, but if such an informal approach fails, it will
consider memoranda of understanding and, in the extreme, litigation. The litigation
route typically ends with a “consent decree,” which is a court-mandated agreement
designed to force the agency into implementing specified reforms (Chanin, 2015;
Powell et al., 2017; Rushin, 2014, 2017).
Consent decrees are controversial, in part, due to their generally exorbitant costs.
They often require extensive reforms to policy and practice and require expensive
oversight. All costs must be borne by the agency under the decree, fueling criticism of
the practice. Evidence suggests the recently approved Chicago consent decree will
cost the city US$25.7 million, including US$3 million for oversight alone (Blakley,
2019). These costs have fueled widespread resistance to consent decrees, particularly
among police unions and the rank and file. In Oakland, for example, reforms were
resisted for 9 years; in Cincinnati, a monitor was even kicked out of police headquar-
ters (Domanick, 2014). Consent decree critics have described them as among the
“most dangerous . . . exercises of raw power” and an “end run around the democratic
process” (DeBow et al., 2008, p. 3). Resistance to consent decrees, and particularly
proposed methods for overcoming that resistance, is the focus of this article.
One may never alleviate all concerns related to police reform. Financial barriers,
however, could weaken if sufficient funds were made available to prospective consent
decree agencies. Assuming the cost of implementing widespread reform serves as a
barrier to reform acceptance, one should consider whether individuals support the cre-
ation of a dedicated police reform fund. The public serves as the victim of police abuse
and perhaps acts as the largest stakeholder of correcting police misbehavior. Thus, the
public may be willing to support police reform efforts as they represent a direct benefi-
ciary of improved police behavior.
However, one should not expect the public to widely support the creation of a
police reform fund. Important variation may exist across one’s assessment of a prob-
lem and willingness-to-pay (WTP) for a police reform fund. Using focal concerns as a
theoretical guide, the seriousness of police misconduct problems, the threat to the
community, and practical considerations are expected to model variations in support
for a police reform fund.

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