Controversies over police officers' use of lethal force appear sure to continue, which means more work for municipal leaders. Though events in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and Cleveland have sparked a national debate, it falls to mayors, managers and other local officials to deal with the immediate consequences. How well they respond to the protests, riots and pressure for changes in policing may, in turn, provoke a reassessment of how we think about the function of local government. Despite all the emphasis in policy circles on the importance of improving municipal service delivery, in this season of unrest "good government" will be defined just as much by officials' skills at managing political conflict.
The conception of municipal government as a fee-for-service arrangement goes back at least as far as the Progressive Era. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia reflected many of his fellow reformers' views when he asserted that "there is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets." Officials in modern times invoke La Guardia to make the point that whereas political conflict may have its place at the state and national level, local government is all business.
But in their classic 1963 study, City Politics, Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson took a different view. They argued that not only is managing political conflict even more important in some cities than delivering services but that the two tasks frequently overlap. "To the extent that social evils like crime, racial hatred, and poverty are problems susceptible to solution, the obstacles in the way of their solution are mostly political. It is not for lack of information that the problems remain unresolved," they wrote.
Banfield and Wilson hearkened back beyond Progressivism to modern government's roots in social-contract theory. As philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke saw it, life without government is remarkable less for the absence of adequate infrastructure and good schools than for the constant threat of violence. People have a tendency to disagree passionately about matters of importance-family, religion, property-and government exists to manage and/or resolve these disagreements.
Recent events in Ferguson and New York City have made plain that life is much better in communities governed by leaders who know how to resolve political disputes. Ferguson was poorly positioned to deal with the reaction to Michael Brown's shooting because it is small, council-manager city. Small towns and cities struggle to attract talent to government, and the council-manager approach to local government is premised on the notion that service delivery is the paramount function of local government. Ferguson officials' blundering responses to the reaction to the shooting seem just as much to have catalyzed the widespread riots as prevented them.
The situation has been very different in New York City, at least thus far. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton may be the most capable official in local government today, not least because of his political skills. During his seven years at the head of the Los Angeles Police Department, Bratton effected a dramatic improvement in the historically fraught relations between the LAPD and minorities and cut the violent crime rate by over 50 percent. Bratton's success in L.A. helps explain why the protests over Eric Garner's death in New York have not degenerated into riots.
According to the best statistical evidence available, police brutality nationwide seems to be declining, not rising. But cellphone cameras and social media have driven a wedge between perception and reality by making the public more aware of questionable uses of force that do occur. We still need our technocrats, but the dual challenge of resisting overcorrections in policing policy and keeping police-community tensions from escalating will take political savvy more than anything else.