Economics Alum, Now on the Tenure Track at Barnard, Discusses His Research on the Costs and Benefits of Policing

July 21, 2021

Morgan C. Williams, Jr. shares what made him stand out in the job market.

Morgan C. Williams, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Williams)
Morgan C. Williams, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Williams)

Morgan C. Williams, Jr. (Ph.D. ’18, Economics) has recently seen his research on race and policing attract coverage outside of academia, including podcasts like The Weeds and another by CNN contributor Bakari Sellers, and in opinion pieces in The Washington Post. He is also the co-author of a paper that will be published by the American Economic Review: Insights

This month, after three years as a NYU Provost's Postdoctoral Fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Williams started a tenure-track faculty position in the Economics Department at Barnard College of Columbia University. He spoke to the Graduate Center about his path to his new role and about the pressing questions addressed by his research:

The Graduate Center: What do you think made you stand out when you began looking for a tenure-track faculty position?

Williams: One thing was that my research focuses on topics that are policy-relevant. I didn't have to sell my research agenda so much, because people understood the stakes, both in policy terms and in terms of where we are within the economics literature.

But I think the most important thing was having some documented research productivity, like my forthcoming American Economic Review: Insights paper, which looks at the relationship between the city's police force size and homicide victimization by race, and enforcement activity by race. During my postdoc, I was able to secure more administrative data that furthered my project ideas. That kind of innovation is necessary, because top journals are so hard to publish in.

I was also able to win grants. Being able to apply for and win grants was certainly helpful, because it shows I have good grant-writing skills and that can be very important early on in a tenure track.

GC: Is there anything you wish you'd known in the early years of your Ph.D. program?

Williams: When it comes down to being productive with research, I think the most important thing to consider is the fact that some places are going to be literal bean counters, if you will. Meaning that they're going to count the number of publications, or the number of grants — more so the former— and that can ultimately decide what it is that you do, no matter how talented or how much research you have in the pipeline. Knowing exactly what the landscape is for you, and talking to people who have been on the market, is helpful.

I would say making sure that you're able to publish something before you leave is probably the most helpful thing. Sometimes you might not have the opportunity to publish in a top journal, but you can pick a smaller one, and that shows that you know how to go through the peer-review process in a way that makes sense for your discipline.

GC: What did you find most helpful during your time at the Graduate Center?

Williams: My adviser, [Distinguished Professor] Michael Grossman (Economics), was certainly a big reason why I was able to get on this path. He afforded all of us a lot of space and was very flexible in terms of what each of his advisees needed. He didn't have a one-size-fit-all approach.

I also felt as if I had a family within the program itself, and I could bounce ideas, polished or not, off other students and talk about new work that's out there. Many of us continue to work, publish, and hang out with each other to this day.

GC: One paper that you recently co-authored stated that when cities hire more police officers, Black residents have the most to gain, but also the most to lose. Could you explain that conclusion?

Williams: Basically, what we asked is when you increase the police force size, what happens to homicide victimization and arrests across racial groups, as those two areas are critical to public safety and how policymakers address it. If you add one more officer to the police force, on average, what are the returns? The results show that for every homicide you want to reduce, you probably have to hire about 10 to 17 officers. But in per capita terms, the gains were twice as large for Black Americans than for white Americans.

On the arrest side, we looked at very serious offenses known as index crimes: burglary, murder, rape, robbery, and so on. We also looked at the low-level, misdemeanor, 'quality of life' arrests, which capture very different types of enforcement and behavior. When we look at those two outcomes, we see that there's actually a reduction in serious arrests when you increase the police force size. And there's also a reduction in index crimes. These results might seem counterintuitive, but they largely reflect the importance of police deterrence. And here, also, the gains are much, much larger for Black Americans than whites in terms of these reduced arrests. Thus, increasing the police force size could potentially both reduce serious crime and racial disparities in arrests that often carry lengthy prison sentences.

In contrast, we also see that quality-of-life arrests increased when you increase the size of the police force. The racial disparities in these arrests are especially concentrated in liquor law and drug possession offenses — with these arrests being three times larger for Black Americans. While there are several potential explanations for these disparities, based on the current literature, there doesn't seem to be a lot of public safety value attached with making these arrests. That's why Black Americans have the most to gain and lose. They seem to benefit greatly in terms of improvements in public safety, but we also want to be careful that we're not bringing more people into the criminal justice system unjustifiably. There's a nuanced big picture about what is to be gained and lost when you increase the size of a police force.

GC: Do you have any policy recommendation, based on that picture?

Williams: One of the main policy recommendations, and this is something that I continuously stress, is that results will differ from place to place. We're speaking to the experiences of 242 cities over about a 38-year period. Especially given COVID and the concern about increases in gun violence, there are many cities that, in terms of the costs and benefits of investing in more police, are very much under-policed — meaning they have a very restricted amount of personnel relative to the amount of public safety challenges.

Some of my dissertation research focused on gun violence in Missouri after the repeal of a permit-to-purchase law. St. Louis and Kansas City are places that have experienced extraordinary levels of gun violence, mirroring if not surpassing what we saw in 1993, which had a historic and unprecedented increase in homicide, not only in Missouri but the rest of the country. My research suggests, at least in the case of Missouri, that a large part of that is gun proliferation. Now, gun carrying seems to be increasing a great deal since the beginning of the pandemic. Which is a very troubling picture, because when you have this inherent sense of danger from more people carrying guns, it incentivizes others to also carry guns.

We have a bit of an arms race, and that's something we want to be very concerned about. Policing is one part of that equation. I want to be clear that it's only one part. There are other things that we can't necessarily measure that are important, and we need to continue experimenting with alternatives, like summer youth employment, and see how they scale up. Could they serve as a substitute for some of the things we ask the police to do? We are still a long way from having definitive answers to these questions.

The same thing is also true for other things that we don't consider directly, but are also very important, like do the police treat people with respect and dignity? Do particular policing interventions and behaviors have important ramifications for civilian beliefs about their legitimacy? Those are things that are really, really important. Policing is going to be a very important component to addressing some of the recent increases in gun violence, but at the end of the day, we also have to take a look at these nuances, and maybe take potential alternatives to policing into consideration.