Applying CBA to the Cost of Transit Policing

At the Policing Project, we believe cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is a powerful and underutilized tool. CBA is a comprehensive method for understanding the full range of positive and negative outcomes produced by a particular policy or practice, including economic, social, and psychological gains and harms.

In advance of “The Benefits—and Costs—of Policing”, our upcoming conference this Friday (available via livestream), we wanted to provide a tangible example of how CBA can be used to help law enforcement and the public better understand outcomes of policing actions. Recent reporting from The Marshall Project on transit policing provides an excellent demonstration of how CBA can be used to tackle disproportionate arrests and better allocate resources to improve public safety.

Policing Subway Fare Evasion

The Marshall Project published two articles last week discussing arrest-oriented policing for subway fare evasion in multiple municipalities, including New York City. (“Arrests And Technology Haven’t Stopped Fare Evasion — And Probably Never Will,” “Subway Policing in New York City Still Has A Race Problem”)

Arresting “turnstile-jumpers” became a cornerstone of the city’s “broken windows” policing policy in the 1990s. In more recent years, the number of turnstile-jumping arrests in New York has dwindled largely because of policy shifts away from fare evasion prosecutions and use of design, technology and fee countermeasures by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

However, as the Marshall Project reports, there are still a notable number of criminal arrests each year for fare evasion - with around 10,000 predicted for 2018. What’s more, these arrests are disproportionately concentrated in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

These findings, the Marshall Project underscored, are consistent with other recent research examining fare evasion. For example, a study by the Community Service Society found that black men aged 16-36 made up half of those arrested for fare evasion, despite the fact they represented just over 13 percent of low-income adults in the city in 2016.

Applying CBA to Fare Evasion Policing

How would we apply CBA to reevaluating how we police fare evasion? A cost-benefit driven approach would not only seek to quantify the positive value of “order maintenance” policies, but also to calculate their unintended costs to individuals, the community, and even the police department. The benefits and costs would then be weighed to evaluate the present policy as well as reasonable policy alternatives.

CBA would ask whether the public costs of arresting fare evaders could instead be reallocated to other ends. This would start with a simple question - what benefits are we trying to achieve? If the goal of policing fare evasion is to ultimately guarantee a safer subway, we might compare the costs of arresting at the turnstile to the costs of placing more officers on the platform or in subway cars where their presence might deter bad acts and make riders feel safer - just as the city did in the 1970s. Or, if the goal is to reduce incidents of subway fare evasion, we might compare the yearly costs of subway fare evasion with the costs of programs aimed at making the subways more accessible to low-income communities.

Within our CBA analysis we might also consider policy alternatives to criminal arrests. For example, New York City Councilman Rory Lancman advocates for using civil summonses (similar to traffic tickets) in place of arrest. Or, as the MTA’s research suggest, a combination of design and technological solutions paired with fine increases for turnstile jumping could be used to significantly reduce fare evasion.

We might also consider how the costs of policing subway fare evasion compare to non-police alternatives that might achieve similar goals. Political realities aside, public funding is fungible - a dollar the city council allocates to the police might instead be allocated to another public program. If we’re driven by concern over allowing subway “scofflaws,” maybe we’d simply want to reduce barriers to accessing the subways outright.

In that case, why not consider access programs akin to what Mayor De Blasio has pursued with his Fair Fares program - potentially lowering the “supply” of turnstile jumpers without affecting “demand” for police services. A “transit equity” approach might bring other, ancillary benefits. This approach is similar to what other world cities like Seoul and Paris are doing to offset the future economic and environmental costs of air pollution through free and reduced transit programs.

A decrease in aggressive, arrest-heavy transit policing would free up resources to tackle the underlying socioeconomic causes of fare evasion. This would benefit communities of color, who are currently disproportionately prosecuted for turnstile-jumping. It would also benefit police department by giving them the opportunity to focus on more pressing threats to rider safety — and by extension, would benefit all riders. Any of these alternative approaches might produce a safer, more equitable subway than the current discriminatory, inefficient system - but we won’t know if we don’t do the analysis.

This post was written by Policing Project externs David Drew, Kathleen Lewis and Alexia Ramirez.