A Warning to Journalists About Elite Academia
Two Harvard professors propose the greatest expansion of the police bureaucracy in Western history.
Two Harvard professors recently published an article called “The Injustice of Under-Policing in America” in the American Journal of Law and Equality. The Harvard professors call for 500,000 more armed cops, who will arrest 7.8 million more people per year.
In other words, these two professors are proposing the greatest expansion of militarized police and surveillance in modern Western history, and they call it “the only way” to live up to “progressive” and “egalitarian” commitments.
The article reveals systemic ethical and intellectual flaws in elite academia. A number of leading researchers, scholars, students, journalists, and organizers have asked me to critique the article because of my relatively safe position outside academia and the enormous stakes as the U.S. stands on the precipice of fascism. I think what follows is one of my most important posts, and I dedicate it to all of the students and junior faculty afraid to speak up about pervasive intellectual and moral flaws in what passes for elite education and scholarship.
What do the Harvard professors claim, and what do they hide?
The entire article makes bad arguments with material omissions, lacking rigor that one would expect from serious academic writing. I’ll try to write a longer analysis of how every key claim in the article is either wrong, unproven, or unimportant. Here, I focus on a few egregious things though.
To start, the premise. The Harvard professors claim: 1) the U.S. has way more prisoners than other countries and 2) way fewer cops. This is bad, they say, because: 3) prisons bring little benefit for their costs and 4) cops bring big benefits for their costs.
Let me first address some initial falsities. I was particularly skeptical of claim (2), and the article’s presentation of claim (4) was ludicrous. I don’t want journalists repeating them uncritically. So, I emailed the professors to try to understand the basis.
Their response was alarming. I pointed out my skepticism of the primary claim that the U.S. has fewer cops than other rich countries. (It’s notoriously fraught to count cops, and to count them across countries with very different systems.) I asked for the data.
Setting aside other problems with trying to compare cops across countries that have different local/national approaches to civilian and criminal law enforcement (as well as to whether police are armed), I suggested to the Harvard professors that their U.S. data source appears to exclude all federal policing agencies (e.g., border patrol, ICE, FBI, DEA, ATF, capitol police, Park Police, military police, etc...), potentially many non-local state agencies, and ALL private police forces.
One of the professors responded that they chose to use the number 697,195 from the UCR (an FBI reporting survey) even though they knew many local agencies weren’t included. So, he admitted that the number may be much higher, like 900,000. (Note: Wikipedia, for example, says 900k based on a major police non-profit source).
The professor then admitted privately over email that the U.S. census count is actually 1,227,788 police. That’s 76% higher than the number they chose to use in their public article. What’s the significance of this? Using this number, they admitted to me, would mean the U.S. truthfully has “1.1 times the median rate in rich countries.”
Recall that the article began with the sexy (false) premise that the U.S. has fewer cops per capita than median rich countries. This was the key premise in Figure 1, the very first chart presented to readers. But nowhere in the article did the authors explain that they intentionally excluded hundreds of thousands of cops that would eliminate that premise.
Whatever else is true, judgment calls and assumptions regarding which estimates to use should have been disclosed to readers rather than taking low estimates that enabled them to suggest (wrongly) that the U.S. is significantly below average in terms of per capita police.
A reader or journalist seeing their article would not know that the U.S. likely has more cops per capita than most rich countries. And I haven’t gotten yet to the professors’ bizarre decision to exclude privately deputized police.
Incredibly, the Harvard professors do not tell readers that they exclude private police forces, let alone offer a sensible reason to exclude them. (One wonders whether this omission was disclosed to the student journal editors who published it.) This omission would be puzzling to residents of Detroit, for example, who see private police forces taking over downtown Detroit, or to people familiar with many private universities and neighborhoods with private police across the U.S. As of 2021, there were 1.1 million private officers in U.S., almost tripling the number the Harvard professors reported.
Confronted with these omissions from the public presentation of their argument, the professors switched course. They claimed to me that actually per capita police comparisons (a lead point beginning their paper) don’t matter much. They care about ratio of police/prisoner and police/homicide.
These points are silly because all they show is that the U.S. overincarcerates relative to other countries and that the U.S. is also a violent society with lots of guns. Those denominators say nothing whatsoever about whether there should be more police (i.e. the point of their article).
For many reasons, their focus on ratios of police/prisoners and police/homicides is perplexing. But for now I want to note that they knew available data may refute the headline-grabbing point about international comparisons, and they chose to hide it. I hope journalists don’t repeat what they did.
The “core” problem with the article is much worse
In fairness, although they name their proposal for 500,000 more cops the “First World Balance” and say in the paper that the international comparisons “anchor this piece,” the professors admitted to me that none of these international comparisons are important to their “core” points. (Why lead with them then?) Their “core” points relate only to the U.S. and are points (3) and (4) above about the relative cost/benefits of prisons and police. But this is where the article goes off the rails.
The most alarming aspect of the article is it repeatedly ignores the costs of more police. I was dumbfounded reading it. The article presents the main cost of their proposal as 7.8 million more arrests. They call it the “main downside,” and it is the only one they even mention. The professors then dismiss the costs of 7.8 million more people arrested as far outweighed by all the amazing benefits of police.
Virtually every subpoint they make is flawed (including their failure to count millions of unrecorded police assaults or even mention that they are excluding them as a “cost” of policing), but I want to highlight the big one: more arrests are not the only social cost of 500,000 more armed cops!
There is an existing literature about this. It’s incredible to see an article published in a major academic journal about the “costs” of police that ignores the central role police have played for 150 years in preserving inequality and blocking investments in progressive social welfare.
A primary function of police has been to protect private wealth and to surveil, infiltrate, and crush every major progressive social movement seeking to reduce social inequality since 1900. It’s why police infiltrated labor, civil rights, anti-war, and LGBTQ movements for decades. It’s why they now crush environmental, abortion, animal rights organizing, etc. Take a look at the NYPD charging and arresting fruit and vegetable workers seeking a $1 raise at the beginning of the pandemic after they were deemed essential workers but couldn’t feed their own families. (For a book project, I am collecting and archiving hundreds of vivid examples of local police doing this to each of these movements.)
Further, police are and have always been central to gentrification, redlining, evictions, immigration enforcement, civil forfeiture, depletion of wealth in poor communities, etc.. And they are preparing to play a central role in anti-abortion and anti-trans enforcement, as well as the enforcement of anti-democratic voter restriction laws. How can two scholars write confidently about costs of police but not mention one of the main things U.S. police will now do: track women and parents of trans kids?
An entire field of scholarship establishes how the police are a main way that wealthy elites—particularly white Christians—preserve inequality and crush social formations working-class people use to fight inequality.
In every single place where I have worked on civil rights, anti-incarceration, and economic justice issues in my 14-year career, police have organized to oppose us. They have lied, cop unions have intimidated vulnerable people seeking progressive changes for their communities, and they have spent huge sums of money lobbying.
For example, I was illegally detained by armed cops touching their guns along with a Harvard Law School student intern after we (traveling with a New York Times reporter) asked for public records exposing police corruption at a courthouse desk. That crime committed by cops (which met the definition of kidnapping) and millions like it are not recorded, and the professors choose to exclude them from their analysis of the “costs” of more police.
Surprisingly, the Harvard professors also ignore one of the most obvious points: police and police unions have been one of the main political forces in the U.S. that has used their increasing political power to lobby for the large prison populations that the professors concede are so harmful.
It is unfathomable that a “rigorous” (their word) interdisciplinary academic article about the political “feasibility” of reducing prison populations by 2 million to pay for 500,000 more cops does not even ask the question about what bad things (including more prison!) would come from a more powerful police lobby.
Ironically, although the Harvard professors claim to have reached this “500,000 more cops” idea as a last resort, they do not even bother to address the century of historical and social science research discussing how the expansion and militarization of the modern police is itself is one of the biggest barriers to the “egalitarian” society that they say they want and that they admit would reduce crime.
For example, even beyond expanding incarceration and surveillance, the police lobby has used enormous financial and political capital to push a fascist agenda: endorsing far-right politicians like Donald Trump and calling on them to increase border militarization, end DACA, support private prisons, and even roll back the Affordable Care Act, etc. To take one of hundreds of examples, state and local police unions routinely support right wing extremist politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Nicole Malliotakis, Elise Stafanik and almost every election-denier running for major office.
Far more ubiquitously and more subtly, police are a major organized force in local elections most people don’t pay attention to, such as judges, clerks, auditors, city council, county executives, etc. They are one of the main reactionary right-wing forces in local politics generally across all issue areas.
Police also spend huge sums of money from their budgets, private police foundations, and union dues manipulating public opinion by spreading misinformation. Nearly every major police department operates the largest PR operation in city government. The LA Sheriff alone has 42 full-time employees working in on PR.
One lesser known related issue: numerous local officials have stated to me that they do not plan to support reducing police budgets because they are terrified of retaliation by police, including raiding their homes or stopping and harassing their loved ones. This happens a lot. The Harvard professors don’t address any of this when they talk about the “costs” to society of more and more powerful police.
The presence and power of these armed bureaucracies within local governments is one major reason we can't fund many of the things that the professors admit lead to real safety. And police threaten society whenever their funding is at risk (i.e. through strikes, misinformation, violence, or simple political campaign expenditures.)
In this way, police are similar to the military-industrial complex and perpetual surveillance and war. The politics of diverting their funding is so toxic because of that threat, and this toxicity creeps into academia through mountains of cash.
To top it all off, the Harvard professors casually dismiss concerns about 500,000 more cops, stating inexplicably that after adding 500,000 more cops “the new United States could hardly be considered a police state.” This is essentially the entirety of their analysis on the point.
They provide no explanation from which we are to understand their point other than the flagrantly incorrect assertion that 500,000 more cops would make the U.S. look like “today’s Spain.” How many more cops, with what technology, targeting which communities would be worth a mention to these authors as a “cost”?
As the United States stands on the precipice of fascism and mass abortion, voting, and trans healthcare-related arrests, this kind of casual, intellectually lazy assertion that it wouldn’t negatively affect daily individual private life to add 500,000 cops outfitted with the latest surveillance and military technology is astonishing. It is as unserious as it is demeaning.
The article chooses not to discuss all of these costs, history, or political realities, or entertain the possibility that we could enjoy the benefits they discuss of fewer prisoners without spending hundreds of billions of dollars on 500,000 new cops.
One final note about the way the Harvard professors address the costs of more police. The professors dismiss the concern that more cops would lead to more police violence by merely asserting the opposite. The professors “guess” (their word!) that adding more armed cops might actually “cause” there to be “less police violence,” which they inexplicably define only to include police homicides (and not stops, frisks, home raids, arrests, beatings, taserings, traffic stops, handcuffing, sexual assaults, etc.) When trying to explain this “guess,” the reasons they give for more police reducing homicides are laughable, make no sense, ignore a field of scholarship on why police violence happens, and are unsupported by citation to any research whatsoever. Indeed, eschewing the cherished academic norm of providing evidence for important assertions, the professors say that they are only offering “speculative reasons.” This kind of armchair “guess” has no place in an academic journal.
The article is incoherent and inconsistent on its own terms
This brings me to the strangest problem with the article. The professors claim to agree that the underlying causes of crime and violence are “concentrated disadvantage.” The authors agree that the “root causes” of serious crime are the very inequality and distribution of social investments that cops protect.
In this way, the article is not just pro-police but profoundly cynical and nonsensical. They admit that inequality is the biggest factor causing crime, but they conclude that social investments to reduce inequality (like early childhood education) are “infeasible,” so they base their whole article (and forthcoming book project) on assuming it is impossible to make the world more equal.
Weirdly, although they dismiss increased targeted investments in early childhood education for the poor as so “infeasible” that the infeasibility forms the basis of their scholarly collaboration, they seem to think that reducing the U.S. prison population by “2 million” prisoners is somehow feasible. They never explain how and, as noted above, they do not even notice the glaring problem: the very police interests they seek to make more powerful have been one of the key forces in higher prison populations.
Over email, they repeated a “pessimism about what kind of social policy alternatives to policing are feasible.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
To summarize: the Harvard professors agree that violence is caused by structural inequality, but since they don’t think that can change, they started an academic project about how to reduce violence without addressing its underlying causes.
And like many political elites before them for 100 years, they conclude that the answer to structural inequality is … more police. Of course 500,000 more cops to control poor people isn’t a surprising (or intellectually interesting) proposal if you start from the premise that social change and a more equal society aren’t possible!
This is just dangerous, de-politicizing nonsense dressed up as fancy scholarship. Elite academia is awash in this stuff—keep in mind these are two elite professors at one of the most elite universities in the U.S. who include a paragraph where they celebrate their own article as “rigorous normative argument.”
In my exchange with the professors, they claimed to be “coming from the left” and said that they “hated” their own conclusion. The fact that a call for the greatest expansion of armed police in Western history is presented as the only “egalitarian and progressive” option is all the more dangerous at a time of rising fascism.
Finally we get to the point: misleading regurgitation of other people’s flawed scholarship
Finally, against all this that they ignore, the real “core” of the article is a highly dubious empirical assertion that more police reduces “serious crime”—which they apparently define to exclude all white-collar crime, environmental crime, crime by police themselves, public corruption, etc. At bottom, the article is really just arguing: police are so good at reducing what the authors call “serious crime” that we should have a lot more of them! If this claim is incorrect, all the other major conclusions of their article would be reversed. To make this claim, the Harvard professors offer no original research.
The core thesis of the paper, on which every other key claim rests, is just a repeat of a highly controversial opinion of a different pro-police professor and propagandist, whose 2017 article on this point they cite in a single footnote. They do not even bother to cite the contradictory research that has for several decades suggested that more police officers do not reduce crime (as police and the Harvard professors narrowly define that term).
Based on this thin, flawed research, they guess that adding 500,000 cops would lead to 4,000 fewer homicides. (They never explain why even that flawed research supports a linear relationship to homicides.) So, their ultimate normative claim is that dramatically increasing the power of the militarized police surveillance bureaucracy at a time of rising fascism is worth reducing U.S. homicides by less than 20%.
They do not account for research about how more cops leads to more trauma and inequality, which lead to non-homicide deaths in the short term and even, by their own admission because of the link to more inequality, more homicides in the long term. (To take one of many examples, police violence has been shown to increase infant mortality in Black children and to “substantially decrease the birth weight and gestational age of black infants residing nearby”).
Consider the many other examples about why their speculation about reduced homicide deaths is not serious.
Consider air pollution. Given that air pollution kills 100,000 people in the U.S. every year (five times the number of homicides), the proposal to add 500,000 cops is even more ironic when you realize that many of those cops would be used to crush environmental protest movements and local activism seeking better air quality. Cops have recently been videotaped threatening even the most modest local protests about environmental pollution. But I could have used an example about water quality, foreclosures, evictions, health-care, labor organizing, or any number of other issues that contribute indirectly to large numbers of death through inequality enforced by police.
This is all the more troubling because these professors who teach students at Harvard know that local dollars spent on police are in direct competition with local dollars not spent on inspections to enforce other criminal laws: clean water and air laws, building and workplace safety codes, and enforcing health and safety laws generally.
Despite all of the obvious omissions (and several dozen more I haven’t put in this post), the authors are confident, proclaiming that the costs “pale in comparison to the benefits” and calling an alternative view on the costs of police “implausible on almost any accounting.”
I admit there is a debate in criminology circles about the extent to which more police reduces the narrow category of behavior cops call “crime.” I’ve written about most of this research and how bad it is. But there is a small group of influential pro-police professors who argue that more police marginally reduces “crime.” Other criminologists disagree.
But to present this biased, contested, flimsy research (done mostly by people working with/for cops) as unassailable scientific consensus and then to base an entire article (and forthcoming book) on that claim without acknowledging that it is even disputed is unacceptable behavior by academics committed to the pursuit of truth.
The student editors of this journal should not have permitted these claims to be made without acknowledging the extent to which they are scientifically disputed. This is the scholarly equivalent of citing one or two big-oil-funded climate change studies that contradict dozens of other independent studies and presenting the former as a scientific consensus while not mentioning the latter even exist. This kind of ethical judgment would be seen as outrageous in almost every other academic context.
All of these are not clerical errors. They are omissions and distortions that undermine the integrity of academic discourse.
This was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. But the journal, run by students at Harvard, is an important one with a history of publishing good work. I hope they will consider taking appropriate action, including retraction of the article’s misleading claims (and likely the entire article given that the “core” of the article is irrevocably implicated in its flaws) and implementation of more rigorous review guidelines for the future.
What does this all mean for academia and journalism?
I write this now because I am concerned about the lack of rigor in academic work about police and the role that police play in perpetuating inequality. And I am worried about how corrupted elite academic and journalistic spaces are by a small cabal of pro-police scholars.
As I’ve written before, a small group of pro-police researchers has published a number of studies in which they assert as fact a sort of scientific consensus that police reduce crime, and outlets like the New York Times, the most powerful media entity in the U.S., have repeatedly printed this claim as some sort of “experts say” consensus.
Many people know that the ticket to stardom in elite university spaces—the key to tenure and grants and institutes and chairs and fancy invitations—is to publish pro-police scholarship (and to serve power generally). In criminology and the economic journals who publish criminology in particular, there are small groups of reviewers who control access to many of the major journals, and many well-meaning academics outside criminology aren’t aware of just how unserious much of modern criminology is.
There is a lot more to say about this. When I have a break from some of my civil rights cases, I’m planning to work with a number of other students, professors, organizers, survivors of police violence, and writers to publish a longer project that broadly critiques pro-police academic research and the role of the liberal professional elite in the rise of fascism.
But this article casually proposing the greatest expansion of the militarized police surveillance bureaucracy in modern Western history is a moment of reckoning for well-meaning people in the academy: what standards of intellectual rigor should we expect from a “social scientist” and a “philosopher” at the highest levels of the academy? What role should intellectuals play on the precipice of fascism?
I am terrified about the role of professors like this in the normalization of the coming authoritarian moment, and of their role influencing journalists and others in elite liberal spaces, and of the role they play in shaping the kind of “conventional wisdom” that makes it into corporate media.
Professors like this are also de-politicizing a generation of students who could dream bigger and who could develop a far more sophisticated understanding of state violence and power, and they are modeling poor intellectual habits for a generation who we need to be so much more humble, accountable, critical, and accurate.
It is also unclear from the data whether many school-based cops (often called “resource officers”) are included.
Another expert has pointed out to me a separate significant oversight in their work: the work week in many of the comparison countries is shorter than the 40-hour U.S. work week, and also U.S. police log significantly more hours than that in overtime pay. So, the choice to measure the number of cops instead of estimating the total hours of policing is likely even further skewing their results.
Here’s what they say:
What an EXCELLENT analysis of what appears to me (who’s conducted and published rigorous scientific research) very lazy, sloppy and biased work by these two Harvard Professors.
I’m also disappointed in the student editors who had an opportunity to apply and use their creative minds, critical thinking skills and their academic freedom to actually fact check and rigorously apply high journalistic standards before just blithely publishing the Professors work.
I do hope you sent those two Professors a copy of your article because they REALLY need some honest reality based feedback.
Well done Alec, I do so love reading your work!
Thank you for this analysis. I wanted to add to one small point- on the use by police forces of PR and communications to propagate their inaccurate and false info. The Better Government Association in Chicago did an analysis of funds spent on PR by the city of Chicago - more than double that of peer cities.
"A dramatic increase in police PR staff took place during Emanuel’s second term, following the murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke. The 2016 budget, which was prepared in 2015 while the Emanuel administration was fighting a public records request and subsequent lawsuit that eventually forced the release of the shooting footage, increased the police department’s public relations team from six full-time employees to 25. Additional staff in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 budgets more than doubled CPD’s communications staff to a peak of 52 full-time employees in Emanuel’s last year in office."
Report at https://www.bettergov.org/news/analysis-chicago-outspends-and-outstaffs-nyc-la-on-communications-and-public-relations/