Monopoly: You Are the Only Game in Town

When I posted The Bottom Line,I discussed the factor that drives businesses to succeed and excel; money.  I also pointed out that absent the presence of a financial goal to make a profit, organizations, specifically police departments, require more difficult forces to strive for success and excellence.

I made a passing reference to the thought that an additional challenge to achieving excellence and ongoing improvement is the absence of competition, or very limited competition.  It is a topic worth exploring.

A police department is a monopoly; they are the only firm (provider) in the market (community) where they exist.  There may be some rare situations where another agency or two is available (creating an oligopoly), but in the strictest sense that one department is a one-for-one substitute for another, it is not likely.  Even in locations where more than one properly authorized agency is present to provide police services in a geographical area, informal and formal agreements are typically in place that delineate the primary roles of each agency.  This reduces duplication of services, service gaps and confusion of the community members that are serviced, as well as the providing agencies. Your police department, is the only game in town.

This monopoly can be a problem for both the provider and the consumer.


For the providing police department, it can be another motivational barrier to excellence.  If a firm is the only option for the consumers in the market and there are no substitutes, it is pretty easy for the firm to put the consumer’s wants and needs on the back burner.  Monopolies are usually associated with inferior service and products; this distinction certainly extends to police departments as well.  Since reputation and the trust that builds reputation is fundamental to a police department’s bottom line, this can put the PD’s books in the red quickly.  The consumer will distrust the agency.

In the world of business, monopolies are often subjected to government regulation and in some cases, monopoly firms are forced to break apart to protect consumers from abuse and high prices.  Police departments are not immune, though the the picture is painted a little differently.  There have been police departments that have entered into consent decrees with the Federal Government because the agencies were operating irresponsibly or failed to respond to the needs of the communities they served.

man showing thumb down

For the consumer, a monopoly not only creates distrust for the agency, but contempt.  The consumer is also likely to become apathetic; faced with the perception or reality that requests for better services or consideration for complaints made, will fall on deaf ears, they will stop communicating with the agency all together.  It is no different than experiences we have all had where there is only one provider option; cable television, phone service, utilities, etc…  If the distrust and contempt deepen, consumers will stop contacting the police, unless the situation they are facing is truly a life and death issue.

The fix?  There is not one.  The fact that the police department is a monopoly is not likely to change.  What can happen though, is that the PD recognizes that it is a monopoly and becomes sensitive to the potential pitfalls that are associated with a monopoly.

Before the monopoly should be permitted, there must be reason to believe it will do some good – for society, and not just for monopoly holders. – Lawrence Lessig

 © 2014 David A. Lyons


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