Nearly every city in the country is vulnerable to the kind of unrest that Baltimore has experienced this week. The underlying forces that led to that city's riot are national in scope, and ours is a nation born in rebellion with a long history of violent civil disturbances.
Riots in America are not rare. From the New York City draft riots during the Civil War to those in cities across the country after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles over police brutality, some Americans have responded violently when the injustice they feel appears to have gone too far.
On Tuesday, President Obama correctly characterized the tension between the black community and law enforcement as "a slow rolling crisis" that has been brewing for decades. But while race is part of the issue, it is not the whole thing. It is unlikely that African-Americans who are financially secure were among the rioters in Baltimore or elsewhere. Increasingly desperate poverty is an important part of the equation, and the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the core of metropolitan areas has tripled and their population doubled in the last several decades. Every one of those neighborhoods is a tinderbox waiting for the match that starts a conflagration. Here, then, are three steps that mayors and other municipal leaders should take to avoid becoming the next Baltimore.
First, dampen the tinder. King famously said that "a riot is the language of the unheard." Listening respectfully -- hearing those who lack the access to city hall that money brings -- and responding in ways that make it clear that their views are being heard and respected, even when they cannot be acted upon directly, will go a long way toward cooling things. Surveys, focus groups, social media and all the other sophisticated tools of the 21st century ought to be used. Forward-thinking city leaders have embraced the use of data and performance measurement, and those approaches can be used to good effect as well. The level of legitimacy that government and its police have should be measured and managed just like every other critical performance indicator.
Second, reduce the chances that a match will be struck. Every mayor should be having careful conversations with his or her police chief. Body cameras are the big thing right now, but what matters is not so much the equipment the cops wear but their attitudes and ideas. City leaders should be asking how their police commanders know what their officers think. Do the commanders rely on guesswork and anecdotes, or do they have some systematic way of gauging the views of their staff? If the hiring process lets through a racist or a person prone to unnecessary violence, would commanders find that person and dismiss him or her before an incident occurs? What is the culture the commanders seek to promote and how are they going about it?
Finally, plan for how to keep the fire small once a match is struck. City leaders should discuss with their professional staffs and their counterparts in surrounding governments, as well with relevant state and federal officials, how they will respond if an incident occurs that could escalate into a riot or if a protest or demonstration begins to turn violent. What will determine the level of force of the police response? When and where should the mayor do press briefings, and who should stand with the mayor at these briefings? How will the governor or the county executive be communicated with and when? What would trigger a request for support from the state in the form of state troopers or the National Guard?
Few things are less predictable or more dangerous than young men and women without hope, and there are thousands of these in so many of our cities. Lots of mayors are working to give these young people hope for a better future, but we also should prepare to deal with the potential consequences of their hopelessness.