Alec Karakatsanis

Alec Karakatsanis



THREAD. Two Harvard professors published an academic article calling for 500,000 more armed cops, who they say will arrest 7.8 million more people per year. The article reveals alarming flaws in elite academia at a time of rising fascism. This is one of my most important posts.

Here is the article in which Harvard profs call for greatest expansion of militarized police surveillance bureaucracy in Western history. Below I discuss the flagrant ethical and intellectual problems and how elite academia can be so dangerous.

If you want to read my whole critique with links and more analysis, you can read it at this link. I explain why I dedicate the critique to all the junior faculty and students fighting against proliferation of unethical and dangerous academic practices.

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 falsities. I was skeptical of claim (2). So, I emailed the professors to try to understand the basis. Their response was shocking.

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.

I suggested to the 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 (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 uses 900k).

The professor then admitted that U.S. census says 1,227,788 police. That’s 76% higher than the number they chose to use. 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. 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.

Incredibly, the Harvard professors do not tell readers that they exclude private police forces, let alone offer a sensible reason to exclude them. This omission would be puzzling to residents of Detroit, who see private police forces taking over downtown Detroit.

It would be puzzling 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, 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 U.S. overincarcerates relative to other countries and that 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).

But the core of article is far worse. Although they name proposal for 500,000 more cops “First World Balance” and say that international comparisons “anchor this piece,” the profs admitted to me none of these international comparisons are important. (Why lead with them then?)

Instead, they suggested, 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 ignores the costs of more police. I was dumbfounded. 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. But more arrests are not the only social cost of 500,000 more armed cops!

It’s incredible to see an article published in a major academic journal about the “costs” of police that ignores 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 cops infiltrated labor, civil rights, anti-war, and LGBTQ movements for decades.

It’s why they =crush environmental, abortion, animal rights organizing, etc. Take a look at NYPD brutalizing fruit/vegetable workers seeking $1 raise at beginning of pandemic after they were deemed essential workers but couldn’t feed their own families.

Further, police are central to gentrification, redlining, evictions, immigration enforcement, civil forfeiture, depletion of wealth in poor communities, etc. And they play key role in anti-abortion and anti-trans enforcement, as well as 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?

In every place where I have worked on civil rights, anti-incarceration, and economic justice in my 14-year career, police have opposed us. They have lied, cop unions have intimidated vulnerable people seeking progressive changes, 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.

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 “rigorous” (their word) academic article about political “feasibility” of reducing prison population by 2 million to pay for 500,000 more cops does not ask the question about what things (including more prison!) would come from more powerful police lobby.

They do not bother to address the century of historical and social science research discussing how expansion and militarization of the 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.

Beyond expanding prisons and surveillance, police have used financial and political capital to push fascism: far-right politicians like Trump and calling on them to increase border militarization, end DACA, support private prisons, and 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 major force in local elections most people don’t pay attention to, such as judges, clerks, auditors, city council, county executives, etc. They are a main right-wing force in local politics generally across all issue areas.

Police also spend huge $ from their budgets, private police foundations, and union dues manipulating public opinion by spreading misinformation. Nearly every major police department operates largest PR team in city government. LA Sheriff alone has 42 full-time employees doing PR.

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 power of armed bureaucracies within local government is a big reason we can't fund many things that profs admit lead to safety. And cops threaten society whenever funding is at risk (i.e. through strikes, misinformation, violence, or simple political campaign expenditures.)

To top it all off, 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.”

As U.S. stands on precipice of fascism and mass abortion, voting, trans healthcare-related arrests, this intellectually lazy assertion that it wouldn’t affect daily individual private life to add 500,000 cops outfitted with the latest surveillance tech is astonishing.

One final note about the way Harvard profs 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.

They “guess” (their word!) adding more armed cops might “cause” there to be “less police violence,” which they 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.

This brings me to strangest problem. The professors claim to agree that the underlying causes of crime and violence are “concentrated disadvantage.” They agree the “root causes” of serious crime are the very inequality and distribution of social investments that cops protect.

Article is cynical and nonsensical. They admit inequality is biggest factor causing crime, but say social investments to reduce inequality (like early childhood education) are “infeasible,” so they base their whole article on assuming it is impossible to make world more equal

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 elites before them for 100 years, they say answer to structural inequality is … more police. Of course 500,000 more cops to control poor people isn’t a surprising proposal if you start from premise that social change and a more equal society aren’t possible!

This is just dangerous, de-politicizing nonsense dressed up as scholarship. Elite academia is awash in this stuff—these are two elite profs at one of the most elite universities in U.S. who include paragraph where they celebrate their own article as “rigorous normative argument.”

They claimed to me to be “coming from the left” and said they “hated” their own conclusion. The fact that a call for the greatest expansion of armed police in Western history is presented as only “egalitarian and progressive” option is more dangerous at a time of rising fascism.

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. They do not even cite contradictory research that has for decades suggested that more cops 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”).

This is all the more troubling b/c profs who teach at Harvard know local $ spent on police are in competition with $ not spent on inspections to enforce other criminal laws: clean water and air laws, building and workplace safety codes, and 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 to present this biased, contested, flimsy research (done by people working with/for cops) as unassailable scientific consensus and then to base an entire article on that claim without saying that it is even disputed is unacceptable behavior by academics.

The student editors should not have permitted these claims to be made without acknowledging extent to which they are scientifically disputed. This kind of ethical judgment would be seen as outrageous in almost every other academic context.

This is the 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 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 in the future.

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.

I am terrified about role of professors like this in normalization of coming authoritarian moment, and of their role influencing journalists and others in elite liberal spaces, and of role they play in shaping the kind of “conventional wisdom” that makes it into corporate media.

Professors like this are also de-politicizing generation of students who could develop a more sophisticated understanding of state violence and power, and they are modeling poor intellectual habits for generation who we need to be more humble, accountable, critical, and accurate.


UPDATE: The troubling work of one Harvard co-authors has been examined by other scholars. Vibrant scholarly debate is essential, but mischaracterizations of prior scholarship are unethical. Flaws uncovered here are profound, and they cross the line:

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