Local governments need to rediscover their raison d'etre

Local governments need to rediscover their raison d'etre
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Eight days of protests in practically every major city in every state in the union — with riots, fires, injuries and untold millions in property damage — betray a basic failure in our municipalities’ most fundamental duty: to protect the safety and property of its citizens.

Consider my home city of Philadelphia as example:

By the morning of May 30, it wasn’t difficult to predict how the day would unfold for the city. The day before, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney had given a press conference expressing his outrage about the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, an outrage shared by nearly all Americans. In his remarks, Kenney affirmed his support for the protests scheduled for the following day, while also projecting confidence that demonstrations in Philadelphia would not descend into the violence that was being seen in other cities across the country. As Kenney put it, “We’re very well schooled, from the [2000] Republican National Convention onward, on how to handle these events. We’ll be respectful, and we expect people to be respectful and to express their anger, express their concern.” The Philadelphia Inquirer summarized the press conference with the headline “Mayor Jim Kenney vows Philly police will be respectful of protesters at George Floyd demonstration.”

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This message from Mayor Kenney and other city leaders was put forward on the morning of May 30, even as Atlanta witnessed the widespread destruction of property (including to the College Football Hall of Fame and CNN headquarters) the evening before. By mid-afternoon in Philadelphia, matters had gotten out of hand, as police cars were burned on major thoroughfares and the first set of stores were vandalized. Then, Kenney changed course, with the Mayor tweeting just after 5:30pm: "The peaceful protests earlier were touching showings of our collective grief. The anger being displayed now cannot continue." He asked the people in the streets to “return home.”

But the genie was already out of the bottle, and later that night, Philadelphia’s central shopping district would be looted, a three-alarm fire would be set, and a police officer trying to stop the ransacking of a store would be struck by a getaway car.

Increasingly, governments — from the municipal level to the federal level — are called upon to pursue seemingly endless objectives. These include cities taking on the mantle of incentivizing certain dietary choices through measures like “soda taxes” or providing supervised injection sites for opioid use. While the propriety of these programs can be legitimately debated, the fact is that these auxiliary services have often come to define municipal government more than its most essential duty of ensuring the safety of its citizens.

While Philadelphia’s 2020 budget ensures the ample funding of its acclaimed Mural Arts Program (an admittedly laudatory project) and for an entire range of publicly-funded arts initiatives, public safety often appears to take a back seat. Homicides in Philadelphia — even before the recent unrest — were on pace to reach their highest rate since 2007 — all while District Attorney Larry Krasner has continued his clashes with law enforcement and past prosecutors. Often, appearing to be on the correct side of certain issues has superseded ensuring public safety.

This trend in reconceptualizing the priorities of government is paralleled by a re-examination of the fundamental responsibilities of other mainstays of our society. In August of last year, the CEOs of nearly 200 major corporations broke with longstanding tradition and announced that maximizing shareholder value would no longer be their guiding principle. And, in higher education, prioritizing teaching has been supplanted, with universities instead emphasizing a host of other objectives, many of which come directly at the expense of teaching and learning.

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While it may always be tempting to enjoy the exercise of re-examining age-old commitments of institutions, one revision that ought never be undertaken is suggesting that governments ought not — above all else — be committed to ensuring public safety.

So, when a New York Times op-ed proposes de-funding police departments as a remedy — or when city officials in Madison, Wis., declare that no arrests would be made on the evening that police officers were assailed with rocks and businesses were looted — it seems a basic rediscovery of the fundamental role of municipal government is warranted.

Indeed, critics might contend that a municipal government failed to protect the safety of George Floyd. While this is no doubt true, the solution is not to suggest that municipal governments ought to abandon wholesale their primary focus of protecting citizens and property.

History makes clear that mob rule — or ochlocracy — is the worst of all forms of government, and a quick look at the past also reminds us that a functioning society can be unbelievably fragile. So, today, in an era when city governments might want to be known for this or that attractive new initiative, prioritizing a baseline degree of public safety, particularly in times of crisis, ought to trump all else.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.