Citizens on Patrol


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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27 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I’m of two minds on this issue.

    1. On a basic thought example, people do have a right to monitor and protect their communities. If the police cannot and/or will not protect certain areas, we should not expect people to be the victim’s of crime.

    On the other hand:

    2. I hate that we have gotten to a point on funding and highly partisan budget fights where we need to rely on volunteer police officers and firefighters. I guess this fits in with libertarian and Republican ideas but not mine.

    3. I worry about vigilantarianism and trigger-happy people. Being a police officer is hard and requires a lot of good judgment. Unfortunately it seems like there are plenty of stories where the police do not show good judgment in the media. This week my facebook page was filled with stories about police shooting an innocent man seven times in Florida. He was getting a pack of smokes from his car and a neighbor who did not recognize him thought it was a burglary. The police did not seem to ask questions. Of course, the victim was black. I suppose someone could argue that this would not happen with a neighborhood watch but the police only came because a neighbor called 911. My general thought is that there will be more stories about bone-headedness from volunteer watchers.

    4. Who watches the Watchman is a hard enough question. It gets even harder when the watchman are volunteers? Who is in charge of discipline? What if a watchman abuses his or her position?

    5. There was a time in the 19th century when most police and firefighting was volunteer and done by political machines. This was also a wildly corrupt time for the police and firefighters and essentially a protection racket. The creation of a professional police and firefighter force was meant to stop this kind of stuff from happening. Why are we going back? Why do we think it will be different this time?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Is Detroit really a good example of libertarian/conservative ideas in action?Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        No, because the local gov continues to try & stop spontaneous order from happening.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Yes, if you count Militias.
        I’d say that’s a trifle argumentative, myself.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Detroit may not have a second act.
        But, if so, the reason will be:
        Urban Sprawl.

        It’s an open question that a lot of economists are looking at.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        No, because the local gov continues to try & stop spontaneous order from happening.

        Seems to me that the desirable kind of spontaneous order only emerges when lots of preconditions are met.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Is Detroit really a good example of libertarian/conservative ideas in action?

        There’s a particular kind of argument that I’ve seen a handful of times: provide an example of a government that is decidedly *NOT* interested in the stuff that libertarians are particularly interested in. Heck, not interested in that stuff for a good, long while. Occasionally, one of these government fails (best case: the failure is like Detroit’s… there are worse ones).

        These governments are pointed to and libertarians are asked “well, how would you fix *THIS*?”

        This question is usually asked by someone with more sympathies toward the government than the libertarians and, unsurprisingly, the libertarians tend to come up with answers that the questioner does not like (and, therefore, will not accept).

        This is seen as justification for the government as it existed right up until the moment of failure.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Desirable to who? To the people such order is serving, if imperfectly, or to governments who have lost control but refuse to accept it?

        If you government is so broken that you can’t provide basic PD & FD services, the last thing you should be worrying about is whether or not the new food truck has all the proper permits.

        It’s like worrying that you forgot to water the plants while the house is on fire.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Re: Private citizens & trigger happy – depends on how DAs treat such. Police usually get a pass on pulling the trigger under dubious circumstances, civilians don’t.

      The self-defense community has a saying: every bullet not fired at the range has a trial/lawsuit attached to it.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      On the firefighting front, volunteerism isn’t something from the 19th century. It’s something being done in large parts of the country right now and I don’t think it’s essentially a protection racket. So I think we do have reason to believe that it would not be now as it was then.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I grew up in rural WI, all the local FD were volunteer. My best friends dad was a LT for one depart, & my boss was the Chief of another. Every weekend during the summer you could go to at least one Fireman’s picnic, where the local VFD raised money for new equipment & training .

        Jokes about the motto about the VFD being “We haven’t lost a foundation yet!” aside, they did an amazing job, mustering a force to fight a fire from a team scattered far & wide across a county (usually those closest to the station would get the trucks rolling to the scene & everyone else would arrive at the scene & gear up on site).Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


      Re: point 2. That’s not what the problem in Detroit is. Instead, you have a city that simply can no longer afford itself, trying to maintain the infrastructure of the city it once was with less than half the population it had then, and that remaining population largely being the low tax base/high service needs portion of its former populace.

      To that extent Detroit city gov’t commands our sympathy. But in addition we have a city gov’t that has for decades refused to recognize the reality of the D’s financial situation and make the hard choices. The budget decisions being made now by its emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, are the hard choices belatedly being made, not a function of ideology or partisanship.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I would not mind radically downsizing the geographic scope of Detroit.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I am becoming ever-more partial to the idea of regional visas for places like Detroit. Reload it with immigrants.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        You’re seeing some of the same problems in Atlanta, with folks no longer being able to afford to drive to work across the city.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        New Dealer,

        I agree, and there are multiple–not mutually exclusive–ways of effectively reducing Detroit’s infrastructure footprint. One proposal is urban farms, and while crops don’t always thrive on land that has previously been built on (due to soil compression), Detroit did recently sell about 150 acres (about 1500 property parcels, in a city with around 60,000 vacant parcels) for a tree farm. The mayor has proposed buying out willing sellers in neighborhoods with a majority of vacant houses and moving them to not-so-empty neighborhoods, then cutting off all but emergency services to the emptied neighborhoods. I have two radical proposals that I wouldn’t expect to gain much political traction. One is to force neighboring suburbs to annex adjacent blighted portions of the city. The other is to empty out blighted neighborhoods, as the mayor proposes, then giving away the property to any developer willing to be contractually bound to redevelop the area as a type of charter city ( whether upscale suburban, new urban, rural/agricultural, or commune–worrying about form would be unproductive).

        Do a mix of all of these. Experiment. If Detroit isn’t suitable for radical experimentation, then let’s pray no American city ever becomes so.Report

    • Avatar Pierre Corneille says:

      ” I hate that we have gotten to a point on funding and highly partisan budget fights where we need to rely on volunteer police officers and firefighters. I guess this fits in with libertarian and Republican ideas but not mine.”

      This type of approach to the problem is not likely to convince people except for those who already agree with you. And even some of those might pause before signing on to it (I agree with most of your other points and am not too thrilled about the recourse to volunteer services, although I need to think about it more.)

      I do suggest you think about a few things.

      1. Maybe at least some of those who hold “libertarian and Republican ideas” do so in good faith, and in fact maybe those ideas might have a point.

      2. As others have pointed out, this situation did not necessarily arise out of D.C.-style partisan bickering. I’ll also add that a confluence of policies have added to the mix of how Detroit got its present-day problems, and some of those policies, especially as they concern Detroit’s overreliance on the auto industry, have been at least aggravated by policies not inconsistent with those supported by “liberal” politician. Some of these policies include trade protectionism, and a model of unionism that imposes legacy costs onto companies, and more recently bail outs. I’m not saying this as a swipe against unionism as such or even against defined benefit pensions, but they have unfortunately become part of the problem.

      3. Maybe your ideas and policy preferences are not the indisputable, true and only heaven. I’m not trying to bait you or liberals in general when I say that. I do think the phrasing you adopt in the quoted passage above reflects a certain….”just so” attitude.

      4. I realize I have singled out for criticism one point out of several constructive and at least arguable points you made in your comment. And last I checked, I haven’t made any substantive comment to this thread. But I do think when such a comment is made, it’s important to expect a little pushback, and I also think that such a comment bespeaks a belief certain complicated questions are simpler than they actually are.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        I would add that part of Detroit’s revenue problem–a part shared by all michigan cities–comes from the state reneging on a sales tax revenue sharing deal. Municipalities used to collect their own sales taxes on top of the state sales tax, but the state legislature persuaded them it would be more efficient if the state did all the collection of all of it and delivered they municipalities’ share to them. But as other state revenues declined, subsequent state legislatures withheld increasingly larger shares of that revenue. Today municipalities get something like–and I don’t remember exactly, so please don’t quote me–<25% of what their share of the deal was.

        Sadly, there really was no partisan bickering about this issue. Both Democrats and Republicans in Lansing have willfully robbed the municipalities and contributed to Detroit's problems.Report

  2. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Related – Private Security servicesReport

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I’m not a fan of those either.

      Keep in mind that my ideal world would have a ban on government outsourcing any aspect of the Justice system to private corporations.

      I’m not even a fan of arbitration most of the time especially binding arbitration clauses in contracts of adhesion.Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Is there any research on the effectiveness of volunteer versus paid fire departments? My father was a paid firefighter and based on what little I know of the different structures, it would seem like response time could be dramatically different (with fires, even a 30 seconds can be “dramatic”).

    Where we are now, we have a volunteer crew. Or, rather, several different volunteer crews, it seems; I’m not exactly sure how the structure works. I make a point to donate. Seems like the least I could do. The local police department, which is paid but doesn’t even serve my part of town but instead tells us to call the Staties who couldn’t be bothered by typical small-type stuff… I’m not particularly sympathetic when they come with their annual pledge drive.Report

  4. Avatar Damon says:


    This must stop. Detroit citizens cannot be allowed to volunteer to make their city livable. That would eliminate the need for gov’t. How are those politicians supposed to get bribes then?Report

  5. Avatar Art Deco says:

    Firefighting and police patrols are not readily comparable except insofar as they recruit from subsets of the male population which have some characteristics distinguishing them from other men. Firefighting is episodic except in certain high density areas and even city fire departments are known to fill their down time with instructional work and regulatory inspections. Maintaining public order is constant work and even in small towns and the countryside there are mishaps to which to attend.

    Detroit has had many problems, but one not usually alluded to is that county and municipal boundaries in Michigan are fixed bar for the occasional incorporation or dis-incorporation of a small town or country village. The same problem is manifest in Upstate New York. There were no adaptive changes to these boundaries or any redistribution of functions between different levels of government in response to changes in settlement patterns. The net effect is that you have a metropolitan settlement which is splayed over four counties; each of these counties is predominantly urban, though they have countryside and small towns on their periphery. The slums of the metropolis are to be found in the Detroit municipality and a half dozen small and adjacent suburbs, and there is scarcely anything but slum in these muncipalities.

    There are (give or take) ~103 municipalities in greater Detroit. That might not be a problem if services were confined to garbage collection and sidewalk maintenance, but with regard to services which benefit from central co-ordination and control and for which the utility varies jaggedly over the urban landscape, fragmentation like this is disastrous. More particularly, the institutional set up requires the slums of greater Detroit to pay for their own police protection. Per capita income in the Detroit municipality is half that of the metropolis as a whole and slums, being slums, have fairly high levels of what sociologists are wont to call ‘social disorganization’. The residents of the City of Detroit simply do not have the resources to pay for the public order they ought to have to stem the demographic hemorrhaging. You can see the results: a homicide rate that is 8x the national mean and 1.9x the most viperous neighborhoods in the five boroughs of New York City.

    The political class of the city is appalling and have made the worst of a disagreeable situation (see Wm. Nojay’s account of his tenure as the temporary director of Detroit’s transit system). There is much that needs to change, but replacing the county governments with a metropolitan authority and transferring the financing and command of all police to that authority are necessary first steps.Report