In 1865, Mark Twain reportedly called the police “the greatest scoundrels in the community.” Today, citizens are still demanding police reform. Among the current proposals are modifying qualified immunity protections, creating greater transparency in policing, and defunding the police. But progress, if any, is slow.

In many publicized cases, some knew about the abuse but refrained from speaking up or taking action, in effect becoming co-conspirators in defrauding and harming the public. The issue is far more problematic when, for example, police officers fail to stop the abusive behavior of a fellow officer and someone dies. The families experience an irreversible loss. And cities often lose money to the resulting settlements, like Philly recently agreeing to pay $1.2 million to settle a suit brought by the widow of a man fatally shot by an officer in 2017.

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To help the police force manage itself more effectively, I propose adopting a deferred compensation plan, which makes officers liable for their own actions and encourages them to speak up when they witness any abuse.

Police officers often work in teams, and most violations are unlikely to remain unnoticed. But officers often hesitate to report their colleagues.

I suggest deferring a small part of police officers’ annual pay — say, 3%. When officers decide to leave the force, if no evidence of misconduct has been found on their watch, officers would have access to their deferred cash, which has been invested to ensure it grows over time. But if they committed misconduct or something happened and they failed to intervene or speak up, they may have to forgo their deferred pay. The objective of the scheme is to change the price of remaining passive or silent.

I came to this idea while working as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after the financial crisis in 2007-2009. As part of our attempts to reform the banking system, we considered asking bankers to defer their bonuses, which could be used to help pay for massive losses caused by their risky behavior or misconduct. Although the idea did not catch on widely in the financial sector, I never lost sight of the potential benefits of such a scheme.

It’s not such a radical notion: Most renters have to provide security deposits, which they are supposed to get back if they leave the apartment in good shape. They give up a portion of their wealth or income as a promise toward being considerate; without security deposits, rental prices could be higher for everyone.

Putting a small portion of police salaries aside also helps address the ongoing problem of footing the bill for police settlements. When citizens sue police departments, the legal fees, claims, and other expenses are paid at least partly out of city budgets — which come from taxpayers.

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Town or city residents should not have to bear any financial burden from police officers engaging in abuse and cover-up. What if a town or city imposes a reasonable fraction of the settlement costs and legal fees on officers, a police unit, or the entire force, if justified? (This has already happened in Colorado, where a police officer who is found guilty of wrongdoing must pay 5% of a judgment or $25,000, whichever is less.) Abusive police officers and those who failed to report the misconduct would be held responsible, and some of the financial costs would be imposed on them.

Critics may say that, under this scheme, police will avoid arrests to reduce the risk of not recouping their deferred pay. But officers can arrest offenders while exhibiting good judgment and avoiding excessive force. Deferring 3% of an officer’s salary isn’t a pay cut, either, which could deter new recruits, thus worsening an existing shortage: If the officer’s performance meets societal standards, the funds are repaid.

A deferred compensation program would be a major change for many police forces, so cities and towns could gradually impose the plan to avoid income shock to current officers — say deferring 1% of wages each year until reaching 3%.

Unlike many other reforms, deferred compensation would not impose additional costs on towns and cities. Instead, it would save money in its execution and can be considered jointly with other reforms. Even if police unions and political interests were opposed, town and city residents could vote to adopt the plan.

If no one talks about police misconduct, it tends to persist. Perhaps a financial incentive will encourage officers to do better.

Hamid Mehran was a staff economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is based in New Jersey.