US cities vary widely in the number of cops they have relative to their population, as the graph below (drawn from data assembled by Governing magazine). Among big cities, DC, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia top the list, with over 40 officers per 10,000 people. These are well above the national average of just under 28 per 10,000. Cities toward the bottom of the list have 20 or fewer.
But one question has been sitting in the back of my mind since the talk of curve-flattening started. Does everyone get the coronavirus eventually? It’s an important question. This is a novel virus for which none of us are likely to have any existing immunity. We are ripe for infection and the rate of spread (without social distancing) is rapid. The presence of asymptomatic spread makes the situation even worse.
For COVID-19, we probably have to have 65-70% of the population immune before the thing dies out. I’ll just point out we are nowhere close to that. Even in New York city, American epicenter of the disease, seroprevalence studies only suggest about 25% of the population is immune
“Our whole reason for lobbying for looser gun laws and amassing huge personal arsenals of weapons these past years was so that we could ensure the security of a free state and protect the people from an oppressive government. And then it actually happened, and the whole rising up against a tyrannical government thing just totally slipped our minds, which is a little embarrassing,” a sheepish NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said.
When property damage and theft happens as a side-effect of real mass protest, authorities in a democracy cannot baton, tear gas, or shoot their way to legitimacy. People want social order, but this isn’t like quelling a riot after a sports game. The key issue—as the Governor of Minnesota put it the other day—is that “there are more of them than us”. All the tactical gear in the world isn’t worth a damn, ultimately, if enough of the population ends up in open revolt against civil authority. There are just too many people.
But if the bulk of a city’s population really is directly engaged in mass protest or indirectly supportive of it, and these protests are met with force by the authorities, then violent disorder will start to look less like pockets of disruption disapproved of by all and more like the loss of legitimacy.
In the absence of mass mobilization for protest, imposing “Law and Order” by force is usually a politically successful tactic, at least in the short-run. The demand for order is the most basic demand of political life. But attempting to impose order by force when people are protesting in the streets en masse is much riskier, both for the leader wanting to “dominate” and for political institutions generally.