On NPR today, Morning Edition featured a story about peace officers in Texas, which number one per 330 state residents. The reporter tosses out this fact and then goes on to report on something basically unrelated: the number of police forces in the state.
The story begins skeptically:
Texas has so many police officers, some lawmakers are worried there are too many.
Among the many entities in Texas that have their own peace officers is the State Board of Dental Examiners. But you won’t generally hear these officers saying “Stop, put your hands up! Dental police!”
It turns out Texas is just full of small, specialized police forces: the State Insurance Department has one, as do the Lottery and Racing commissions, the Pharmacy Board, and a handful of water districts.
But the story ends on a very different note, profiling Gary Patterson, the police chief (and only officer) in the Blooming Grove Independent School District:
Patterson patrols the halls of Blooming Grove High School — home of the Fighting Lions — a benign figure in his blue police shirt with a tonsure of white hair and a shambling gait. After a long career as a dispatcher for the state troopers, Patterson came back to the town where he grew up.
“You’re kind of like a father or grandfather figure to a lot of them,” Patterson says. “Cause you’ve known them since they were in elementary and you’ve kind of grown up with them.”
It would be easy to criticize his position as one more example of superfluous Texas peace officers — until you follow him around the school. He knows the kids by name. He knows their parents. He knows what’s going on in their lives. He knows why they’re in trouble.
This story reflects a point made by Eileen Norcross and Frederic Sautet here, and by Robert Nelson here: in the public sector, where there are no prices to convey information, hence making benefits and costs hard to weigh, there is no universally correct number or size of local government entities.
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of a single-person police force for a three-campus school district. We likely assume that there are non-trivial fixed costs associated with running a school district police department, so economies of scale could be achieved by just having, say, a county sheriff’s deputy police the school. But we don’t really have the information necessary to make that call, and certainly not from the vantage point of a state capitol or the ivory tower.
So the bottom line: be skeptical when you hear “common sense” pleas to eliminate small local government entities like one-man police forces. There may well be a case for eliminating them, but proponents of elimination cannot just assume that economies of scale are achievable — and they cannot discount local knowledge as worthless.