Police departments around the country are increasingly using “bait” objects equipped with tracking devices to stop theft before it happens. The idea is simple: officers place a GPS tracker in an unattended car, laptop, or other object and wait for theft to occur. Once they are notified that an object is in motion, they can apprehend the thief. Police departments are able to stop theft without conducting lengthy stakeouts.
So what’s the problem?
The Policing Project will be working to answer this, and many similar questions, as we continue our work to advance the use of cost-benefit analysis in policing. On February 9-10, methodologists from a variety of disciplines—criminologists, economists, social psychologists, and other quantitative method experts—will gather at NYU Law to take on a tough problem: How do we know which policing practices are effective?
First, the benefits: The practice of “bait tracking,” for example, has driven down the cost of labor for police departments. The one-time cost of purchasing a device is much smaller than the cost of employing a team of officers to monitor a bait car for hours on end. As tracking devices become less and less expensive, this gap continues to widen. The low cost of these devices makes them especially attractive to smaller departments that simply cannot allocate large amounts of labor to bait monitoring and other proactive practices.
The devices also help departments stop crime before it occurs. Departments that use it report an increase in the number of arrests for theft, particularly for commonly-stolen items such as laptops and bicycles. Because the items stolen are “bait” items, community members’ property is not compromised in the process. In addition, officers are able to focus their efforts in high-crime areas. If a department notices a spike in car theft in a particular neighborhood, they can place a bait car there in an attempt to target the responsible individuals.
But these benefits come at a cost. Because bait items are planted by police departments and do not belong to any private individual, community members may question the legitimacy of associated arrests. Legitimacy concerns are exacerbated when bait is broadly targeted at a community rather than at particular suspects. While other sting operations typically target individuals already suspected of criminal activity, bait laptops and other items may be picked up by a first-time or low-level offender. Are officers unfairly creating an opportunity that otherwise would not be there? If so, is the increase in arrests for theft a success? Or are the police catching someone who otherwise would not commit a property crime?
These legitimacy concerns may have an even broader impact in heavily-policed communities. Community policing principles tell us that trust in the police increases when policing becomes a collaborative effort and when residents feel that they have a say in how they are policed. The success of bait tracking, in contrast, depends on community members not knowing that devices have been planted by police officers. When these communities – most often low-income and minority neighborhoods – are subject to additional enforcement in this manner, trust in police can be compromised. Is detection of potential thefts worth a decrease in police-community relations?
As this example shows, police departments have a lot to weigh when they consider a new policy or evaluate an existing one. Some variables, like the cost of a product or time saved, are easy to quantify. Other variables, like the legitimacy of an arrest or the loss of community trust, are more difficult to measure. Our team of methodologists will be taking on the task of measuring and balancing these variables, and will then work with specific police departments to analyze their practices. Stay tuned for more information on the Policing Project’s upcoming conference and future CBA work.