On Baltimore
May 1st, 2015

I spent four years living in Charm City, but I don’t have any special insights on the current situation. (Though I did witness my own, private mom-decking-her-out-of-control-son incident, and it was awesome. I’ll tell that story some time.)

To my mind, the best thing I’ve read on Baltimore comes, unsurprisingly, from John McWhorter, who really is the intellectual that everyone pretends that other guy is. You should read the whole thing here.

I agree with McWhorter’s broad prescriptions about repairing the breach between inner-city residents (especially young black men) and the police. But I don’t know if I believe that relaxing the drug war would help.

Now, I think that, on balance, legalizing drugs is a bad idea for other reasons. But if you set them aside and just consider McWhorter’s point, I’m not sure it would help in the specific goal of normalizing relations between inner city police and residents. For one thing, even legalization of pot will come with some limits and an illegal economy will spring up around them, wherever they’re set.

McWhorter seems to focus on the societal side of reconciliation, but I suspect that there’s lots of low-hanging fruit on the government side. Meaning, that you could improve relations by reforming the police themselves. Start with breaking (or defenestrating) the police unions, which–intentionally or not–empower lots of mid-level corruption by thwarting punishment of the very worst corruption. Once cops know that they are real consequences for misbehavior, push technology (especially body cameras) to help establish a culture of accountability for both officers and citizens during interactions. It would be great if there was a way to empower prosecutors to aggressively pursue charges lodged against police, too (though that might be a pie in the sky).

Once you can reasonably promise citizens that while the police may not be perfect, they can no longer get away with the kind of criminal behavior which Connor Friedersdorf shows was more or less routine, then you can start actually trying to rebuild relations through community policing and other strategies. (If David Petraeus could use counterinsurgency to build good working relations with Iraqis living under occupation, then surely a smart and determined police chief could achieve something similar.)

Why start with the police? It would be nice if you change both ends of the continuum at the same time: Make the police more professional and change the culture which tells people that it’s okay to riot and loot. But there’s no institutional mechanism with which to engage the people. (Or rather, there is. But it’s called the public schools and in places like Baltimore they’re so broken that fixing them becomes the heaviest lift imaginable.) So you start with the cops, because there are a relatively small number of them, they exist within an institution which can be molded, and because they are heavily-motivated actors, since they’re the ones drawing a paycheck for their actions.

  1. Chris Mayhew May 1, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    There is a good argument to be made that Petraeus mainly killed his way out of Iraq via JSOC and some bribery of the population. That insurgency worked is a controversial claim.

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  3. derek sutton May 2, 2015 at 10:03 am

    I was once a probation officer in a Midwestern city. One thing I don’t see mentioned in these debates is how frustrating the system must be for folks after an arrest. Endless days waiting for court appearances, trying to find rides downtown to see their probation officer, wasted days performing bs community service, irritating diversion classes for drug and alcohol education, etc etc. The system is slow and full of “hurry up and wait,” lots of bored and overworked bureaucrats who clearly don’t care what happens (who make mistakes that the arrested feels aggrieved about), dingy walled waiting rooms. All of it sucks. I guess maybe it should since it’s the result of criminal activity, but I really don’t think you can underestimate how much frustration from these communities results from the back end of the system as much as from the front end (cops and such).

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  5. Nedward May 2, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Among the canards emanating from the know-nothing SWPL lib faction about police reform, a very routine pseudo-sophisticated example I hear is that 1990s abolition of residency requirements for police departments suddenly created all this strife between urban criminals and the cops — the rigor-free terminology of “fabric” and “it takes a village” is also deployed:


    Strangely they never test this feel-good whole-foods form of logic against the Big Easy AKA Corruptionville which has always required residency and in the recent past led the nation in # of officers on Death Row as well as other metrics of turpitude. There is a deathless attitude Tom Wolfe was satirizing in the 60s, to wit, that the authorities and the gang members need to have a meeting of the minds and understand each other better. Public school system aside, I think the gangs understand the other side’s position just fine.

    The body cams are the first and necessary reform, though it has very little affect either way on the gripes from locals. That counterweapon is targeted squarely at the vile media class, who have a vested interest in promoting racial arson.