"Politics as the crow flies" and the Baltimore riots

Michael Oakeshott sometimes referred to the rationalist attitude to politics as "politics as the crow flies." As I understand his meaning here, he is criticizing the notion that, if in political life we detect some problem, we must immediately enact the first legislation that comes to mind that seems to correct the problem.

The flaw in this approach is that it ignores the complexity and inter-connectedness of social life.
The direct fix for problem A may easily create problems B and C, and they may be worse than problem A.

Police personnel being drawn from the neighborhood in which they are to serve can create problems, since they may tend to favor their friends or relatives from the neighborhood. And police may not want to live in a troubled city.

So states have moved to strike down residency laws, and some cities, like New York, forbid officers from serving in the precinct where they live.* But such moves may solve one problem at the expense of creating even worse ones, such as the police force viewing the citizens they are supposed to serve as an alien population they are tasked with subduing.

In Baltimore, it turns out, three-quarters of the police force live outside the city. And for white cops, the number is more like 90% living outside the city. (I am estimating that number from the graph in the linked article.) Is it likely that the Baltimore police would have treated Freddie Gray like they did if he had been their neighbor?

I believe a connection between police officers and the neighborhood in which they work is essential. At the very least, we could create community boards with some authority over how the police operate in their neighborhoods, for instance, by demanding transfers of cops who are especially unresponsive to local concerns.

* I believe this last claim is true, as I recall being informed about it by an NYC cop, but I have been researching it and am having trouble finding out if it is so. I may have an update soon.

UPDATE: I confirmed that my MYC claim is, indeed, true.


  1. This article politely and accurately explains the problem with a template approach to policing demographics. In almost all cases, it is better for the police and the residents if the former is part of the community.

    Reading this article reminded me of a scene from The Wire (a show set in Baltimore!) where the resident says "here's the one thing that I miss about my neighborhood is that we knew the police. We had a white police officer and our house was on his foot-beat. And he would be sitting there talking to my mother damn near every night...he even knew my grandmother. I have not seen that face to face policing in a very long while... and that is how it should be"


  2. You'll need to roll over the police unions to do that.
    (A feature not a bug IMO, but a difficulty.)


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