Police flight in New Orleans

As part of the Social Change Workshop at the Mercatus Center, a group of GMU econ students have been meeting with Pete Boettke this semester to discuss the economics of New Orleans and disaster recovery in general. We’ve been reading The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley to spark discussion.
The topic of conversation that I’ve found most interesting is in regards to the following piece of historical fact. After Katrina hit why did so many officers quit or abandon their posts (an article from the New York Times). This didn’t seem to happen in other cities and especially not in New York after September 11th (a catastrophe of at least similar perceived proportion). I think two simple economic concepts hep explain the majority of this phenomenon; purposivity and sympathy. In either case it is both rational and possibly reasonable (depending opon your opinions of moral obligations) for cops to have quit the force when they did. Let me clarify, I’m not trying to justify a cop quitting his job or doing any other sort of behavior, all I’m saying is that what we observed, cops quitting their posts isn’t all that surprising.

The purposivity explanation of quitting cops is straight forward. Despite what some people might think, or what police officers might self-report about altruistic motives for joining the force, I beleive officers contain self-interested motivations for enlisting in the academy (perhaps in addition to altruistic motives but not purely altruistic alone). There are more cops on staff because of compensation schemes, like job security and government pension plans then there otherwise would be without such compensations. In addition to wanting to serve and protect the public, it is reasonable to assume that police officers join the force because it’s a good way to earn dependable income, start a family, and live a fullfilling life. In other words these are the ends for which becoming a police officer, under normal conditions, are a mean. If you radically change the conditions under which the officer exists, that choice may be made drastically differently. If you wash away the home and possessions of the officer and displace his wife and children. Suddenly there seems to be a whole list of more pressing matters to attend to instead of protecting and serving the public. Instead he needs to comfort his family, rebuild his home, etc. Being an officer no longer meets his ends, so it’s not surprising for him to update his decisions and meet his ends by other means. This may include abandoning his pot.
This explanation is more sensitive than the other. Sympathetic projection is the concept that individuals gain some sense of value from increasing the utility of others. It is the concept of sympathy that allows us to understand the rationality behind becoming a police officer despite its inherent dangers and risks. But to who does the sympathic projection get attributed to in the New Orleans example. I find it less likely that individuals become police officers with the explicit intention to preserve peace and order in the city of New Orleans, with the geographic entity being defined as the object of sympathy. Sympathy does not get projected to the arbitrary geography of the city so much as individuals wanting to become police officers more likely project sympathy toward individuals and groups which they identify as innocent members of civic-society, in contrast to predatory aggressors and criminals. In the aftermath of the hurricane, there seemed to be a body of people still in the city, resulting from a very intense selection process of self relieved flight. Amongst the remnant population there were reported cases of violence, crime, looting, etc. It seems reasonable for officers to view the remaining city as a lost cause, as not the group of people they signed up to protect. Thus it once again seems rational for them to abandon their positions rather than stay.

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