Writings from the intersection of law enforcement and the Internet

Policing Sunk Costs

New York Times author Nikole Hannah Jones recently made headlines herself for claiming that the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to the sunk cost fallacy. The United States had spent so much money and time in creating an atomic weapon that it used the resulting tool only to prove that it was worth the effort. Anyone who has a half understanding of world history knows this is incorrect. This claim made in the weeks, months, or even a few years after the event, would be understandable. But after 81 years of study, scrutiny, and academic review, this assertion is proven wrong. So wrong, that someone who makes it should be held in no more regard than a person who still claims the earth is flat. Of course, Ms. Jones isn't about the truth.

Giving credit where credit is due, government decision-making and policy can be influenced by sunk costs. Personally, it is easy to pivot when realizing we're “throwing good money after bad” but in the machine of government, that is much easier said than done. Particularly, when the ego is involved.

Law enforcement agencies have this odd organizational setting where it's not quite a strict hierarchal military rank and file system but yet not run like a free market business entity. Much like a business, law enforcement agencies must satisfy the needs of their customers – the public it serves, and the executive board – the elected politicians. But unlike a business, the customers can't just go to a competing business. No matter how poor the service, the customers keep paying the bill – in the form of taxes. And the executives are everchanging, so if the law enforcement leadership conflicts with the CEO or Board of Directors they need only wait them out through the next election.

This lack of oversight makes police leadership prone to sunk cost decision-making. The reviewers of their work continuously change and the revenue keeps coming in no matter how poorly they service their customers. When was the last time you saw a police department file for bankruptcy, or go out of business altogether?

And ego is strong. Law enforcement leaders can have more bravado and contempt for criticism than business sense. Ask any patrol officer on the street if they are required to complete a task that is overburdening and inefficient simply because their leadership refuses to adapt or change the process. Get a pen and pad because you're going to get a list.

Most of the time this failure to change or discontinue an inefficient process comes down to a leader unwilling to admit or even see that their idea was misguided or flatly wrong. They will believe the problem is the execution, not the theory. It's not the plan, the rank and file can't see the vision or aren't intellectually capable of carrying it out. Or it's a hold-out over labor issues. They will never consider that the procedure lacks common sense, conflicts with established best practices, and makes the end-user work harder. Although the idea may make sense in the comfort of their top-level office, in reality, it is burdening and inefficient in execution.

The chore will continue however to prove the expenditure of money and manpower spent implementing it was worthwhile. The sunk cost fallacy.

Law enforcement agencies should have a committee that meets at least once per year to review policies and procedures that are potentially inefficient and burdensome. A sunk cost review. Does this procedure or program only exist because we don't dare to admit it needs to change or be terminated? Are we throwing good money after bad?
Anyone in the organization, sworn and civilian, can submit a policy, procedure, or program for review. Publish a form where the employee explains the problem and provides examples of how it's affecting the agency. The committee should consist of at least one person from the various interest groups; an executive officer, mid-level supervisor, unranked officer, civilian employee, an elected official, and a citizen from the community. The panel will issue its report to the chief of police with recommendations to make the department more orderly and efficient.

It's time to write off some of these sunk costs.