some remarks on Elinor Ostrom and police reform

[Given today at Governing the Commons: 30 Years Later, a Virtual Symposium hosted by The Ostrom Workshop.]

We are having a national debate about defunding the police or otherwise deeply restructuring criminal justice. The reasons are Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and all the other unarmed African American civilians who have been killed by police. Their homicides are symptoms of broader injustice. For example, I find that being Black raises one’s chance of being treated in a discriminatory way by the police almost five-fold, and that 42% of African Americans have been mistreated by the police at some point in their lives.

Elinor Ostrom did not contribute to analyzing the roots of racial injustice. She didn’t focus, in general, on differences of identity. I would not recommend her as a source on those topics, although they are integral to any discussion of police reform.

She did, however, conduct pioneering empirical research on policing in America, focusing specifically on disparate results by race. Her findings and her broader theoretical framework offer valuable insights–less about the roots of structural racism than about possible solutions.

Concretely, she and colleagues found that police served all citizens, and especially Black citizens, best when police departments were small, when their jurisdictions overlapped, and when various aspects of law enforcement were disaggregated and assigned to distinct agencies in a polycentric manner. She opposed the powerful trend to centralize and consolidate bureaucracies and to apply crude outcome measures, such as numbers of arrests.

More broadly, Ostrom understood public safety as a common pool resource in a polycentric world. Public safety is a common pool resource because it is subtractable (individuals can undermine public safety) but non-excludable (individuals cannot be prevented from benefitting from the resource). She argued that common-pool resources are challenging but not impossible to create and preserve. They are not doomed to the tragedy of the commons. Moreover, both of the dominant modern ways of preventing tragedies of the commons–states and markets–are frequently flawed and do not exhaust our options.

The police epitomize a state solution to crime. The government requires citizens to contribute taxes to pay for a distinct and specialized service-provider that has the capacity to enforce laws, including the requirement to pay taxes. This is a stable institution. The overall problem is trustworthiness: why should we trust the police to act in everyone’s interests?

Market solutions include private security services, walls and locks, and insurance against kidnapping, among many other tools. The drawbacks include inequitable outcomes and a tendency to shift danger from one household to others.

But we can generate public safety in other ways. For instance, the voluntary associations that people create and run reduce crime in their communities. Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar find that “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate.” That finding fits very nicely with the Ostroms’ theory. Vincent Ostrom told Paul Aligica:

We do not think of ‘government’ or ‘governance’ as something provided by states alone. Families, voluntary associations, villages, and other forms of human association all involve some form of self-government. Rather than looking only to states, we need to give much more attention to building the kinds of basic institutional structures that enable people to find ways of relating constructively to one another and of resolving problems in their daily lives.

The Ostroms’ ideas are congruent with some current reform proposals. For instance, Black Lives Matter says:

We demand a world where those most impacted in our communities control the laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve us – from our schools to our local budgets, economies, police departments, and our land …. This includes: Direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, ensuring that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information.

This past summer, predominantly nonviolent mass protests, forced police reform onto the policy agenda. The momentum is palpably fading. Astead W. Herndon reports in the New York Times:

Over three months ago, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to defund the city’s police department, making a powerful statement that reverberated across the country. It shook up Capitol Hill and the presidential race, shocked residents, delighted activists and changed the trajectory of efforts to overhaul the police during a crucial window of tumult and political opportunity.

Now some council members would like a do-over.

Councilor Andrew Johnson, one of the nine members who supported the pledge in June, said in an interview that he meant the words “in spirit,” not by the letter. … Lisa Bender, the council president, paused for 16 seconds when asked if the council’s statement had led to uncertainty at a pivotal moment for the city.

“I think our pledge created confusion in the community and in our wards,” she said.

The regrets formalize a retreat that has quietly played out in Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd was killed by the police

You could explain this retreat as ordinary politics: mass protests pushed the pendulum one way; now it is swinging back, and politicians are just riding along. But I would add another explanation. I think that only relatively small and specialized circles–including people inspired by Elinor Ostrom as well as some left-radicals–have seriously considered concrete ideas for providing public safety with much less reliance on police. The public as a whole is not aware of these alternatives. That is a reason to continue to apply and to publicize the work of Elinor Ostrom and the Workshop.

I also believe that the Ostrom tradition should pay more attention to issues of difference and exclusion that relate directly to Lin Ostrom’s model. One of her design principles for managing a common pool resource is to establish clear boundaries around the community that owns the resource. In the case of policing, geographical boundaries can help. But another boundary is available: race.

Although public safety is non-excludable, in the sense that an individual cannot easily be excluded from its benefits, whole groups can be excluded from the boundaries of a community. When being Black raises your odds of being mistreated by the police five-fold, it appears that a salient boundary is race. A majority-white jurisdiction can provide public safety for white people but not for others. In fact, the police not only serve and protect those inside the boundary but also play a major role in maintaining the color line.

It’s obviously not enough to say that clear borders are assets for communities, although they are. We must also distinguish between good, bad, and evil borders. At this point, I think we need resources other than those provided by Lin Ostrom’s own work, although I suspect she would agree with that point.

Sources: Patrick Sharkey, Gerard Torrats-Espinosa, Delaram Takyar, “Community and the Crime Decline: The Causal Effect of Local Nonprofits on Violent Crime,” American Sociological Review, vol. 82 issue 6, pp. 1214-1240; V. Ostrom to P. Aligica, 2003, in Tarko, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, p. 49. See also: insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; police discrimination, race, and community poverty; police discrimination, race, and community poverty; more data on police interactions by race; on the phrase: Abolish the police!

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.