Tag Archives: crime

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.


Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

City Hall Wants a Communications Officer; the Real Motives Unmasked. Castration by the Hatch Act.

The next commission meeting is this next Tuesday. On the agenda is a request to approve 78K to hire a “specialist” to communicate good news etc about Kentwood (and here I thought that I did a pretty good job.)

One of the provisions gave me a start. This employee is tasked with “Develop(ing) and execut(ing) campaigns and/or associated materials to support City millage initiatives.”


First of all, what millage initiatives or tax increases does City Hall envision. What shortage of funds exists to justify this assault on our benighted taxpayer? And who exactly wants to raise taxes? Someone who promised not to when (s)he was elected?

I’m going to vote against this entire fraud on laws well established nationally and apparently also copied into the Michigan law. (I can’t link for some reason.)


Supporting this schema would be against the law and I’ll vote no.

City Commissioners Vote to Starve Poor Children and to Lower Real Estate Prices

The big roll out of the 2016-7 budget occurred last evening, six hours of it. I voted “no” twice, once on a proposal to hire a new rental property inspector and the second time against the entire budget in part because of the inspector issue.

The pitch was that the city could help control crime and shiftlessness by improving the housing in which renters lived. Therefore the city should increase the inspection of these properties so forcing correction of perceived deficiencies. The city would do well by doing good!

I differed. The sociology here is dubious and the economics is even worse.

Sociologically, there are data showing that hooligans don’t own their apartments but rent. I’d intuit that these lowlifes don’t have much money, live in shabbier and cheaper quarters and are likely beat property up more than their more civilized contemporaries. But none of this supports the notion that living in a self created fleabag causes bad behavior. Correlation is not causation. Crime, poverty and laziness are not treatable by “improving” housing. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The economic implications of increased inspections are actually more ominous especially here in “Rentwood.” Nearby Grand Rapids increased inspections in 2011 and drove rental costs up by about $100 per unit.  Inspections cost landlords a average of $5,000 per unit which, capitalized, might have supported a $50 dollar a month increase But landlords had to come up with lots of money rapidly, they were uncertain about what other fantasies that the GR city fathers harborred and facing risk, doubled the rent increases. The knock on effect was that fewer renters could afford the new fare, so they moved back in with parents or doubled up in existing units so the demand for rental units faltered.  Marginal landlords were forced to exit the industry, they sold or abandoned their properties and so lowered real estate prices. Decrepit areas of Grand Rapids became more threadbare, not that you’d notice.

Well, say the reformers who wanted to improve the lives of the poor by improving the housing in which they live, it only costs each renter an extra $100 dollars a month to live in housing that we approve of. True enough, except that for many a $100 dollars is  a $100 dollars and spending it for rent means that they can’t afford peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids, so they go hungry and, at best stare listlessly at the well fed reformers who arranged the original inspections and “improvement” of their quarters; at worst the urchins slit the throats of their oppressors.

If renters are unhappy with the cleanliness, safety or cost of their apartments they can easily move to others that they can afford that satisfy their wants. Governmental intrusion intended to make folks better by forcing them to live in more expensive housing than what they prefer comes at huge costs both socially and economically that dwarf the minor costs to the city of hiring another inspector.

Doesn’t anyone pay any attention to theory of unintended consequences anymore?

“Peace Officer” A Movie with a Message for our Commission and Police.

“Peace Officer” A Movie with a Message for our Commission and Police.

Kris and I hike or bike daily, missing only when it’s pouring rain or too slippery. This happens occasionally in West Michigan, so there came an afternoon recently when we went to Commissioner Arz’s multiplex at Woodland where they have a series of “indie” films for 5 dollars, about our price range. Kris had been keen to see a documentary called “Peace Officer” and I was sold when I saw a picture of Radley Balko, a writer for Reason and one of my Facebook buddies on the promo,

It’s a long movie about the police development and use of SWAT teams. The main character and narrator is a retired Utah sheriff named Dub Lawrence who is currently self employed repairing septic tank pumps, an occupation that he deems superior to politics. He had developed a SWAT team for his county in the 1970s and was proud of his accomplishment until he personally witnessed his team murder his temporarily overwrought son in law. Dub did an extensive years long investigation that showed dysfunctional practices of these units as well as an apparently flawed, self serving investigation by the police force. Law suits have not prodiced any relief for the dead man’s family.

Dub went ont ot investigate at least 2 other botched SWAT team incursions, both done to serve otherwise routine warrants. One, done on Christmas, had armed men invade the home of a reported Army deserter which terrified the family and in which one of the officers told the man that if he had picked up a gun instead of a baseball bat, that he would have been shot. It was served on the wrong individual.

The other SWAT team incursion was to search for marijuana. The man growing some plants in his basement, was awakened from sleep and didn’t hear the police announce themselves. He had a pistol nearby which he used to defend himself. He expended 35 rounds of which 17 hit invading police officers. The police used a ridiculous number of rounds, my recollection was between 500 and 1000, of which 3 hit the man defending his home and 4 killed one of the other police officers. Numerous rounds passed through the home and went through the neighboring home and even into the second house. In the ultimate indictment of the valor of our SWAT team, the miscreant marijuana grower drove a five man SWAT team from his home, and escaped into his garage where he was apprehended by our valiant team. The investigation incorrectly concluded that the miscreant had murdered the police officer.

The film generously allows the involved police, prosecutors and politicians to present their concerns, and many seem to be genuine. One is struck by the clash of what the police investigations had concluded to have happened and easily demonstrated contrary findings.  The flawed investigations in connection with police sovereign immunity leads one to near despair; the police can do whatever they want with impunity.

In Kentwood, we apparently use our SWAT team about 4 times per year. I know of at least one (and possibly two officers) who were fired for misconduct in the last few years. Our chief seems to be fairly clear eyed about such transgressions. On the other hand, our officers have been involved in at least two killings in the last year or so, and both were adjudged  to be justified.


There were only 4 customers at our  viewing of “Peace Officer” so its message is not likely to incite domestic unrest, but it should put our commission on notices to monitor our police and their use of military equipment closely. I’m somewhat comforted by my recollections of being in the army; The use of equipment was desultory at best and we certainly didn’t win my war nor many other wars in the last 70 years using these toys. We who are in a fiduciary position must remember that use of these weapons emboldens police and accidents do happen endangering both police themselves and the citizens that they are sworn to protect.  

A Visit to Washington State; Rural Poverty, the Solons in Olympia, HUD, and What Disruptions We Need to Foresee

Kris and I vacationed last week in Washington State, mostly on the Olympia peninsula, staying at a low key “farm” B and B, at some distance from the usual tourist haunts.   We had a great time, hiking, biking and just talking in the evenings with our hosts, Joy and Joe. We learned something disconcerting during those lazy talks. It seems that this spectacular coastal region of the state was home to thousands of lumber related jobs which all disappeared when the environmental movement became ascendant 20 or 30 years ago. Tourism has not filled the void and so rural poverty now dominates the peninsula outside of the few tourist magnets. Obese, tattooed smokers loitered around the few gasoline stations and unpainted single-wides were hidden behind the lush evergreens. There is drug abuse, domestic violence and petty crime. (The perps won’t walk very far, and the rest of the peninsula is untroubled and spectacular.)

Interestingly, this  was much worse 20 years ago as the lumber industry collapsed casting tens of thousands out of work and into pauperism. This caused a political outcry heard in Olympia. The State of Washington upper class decided that it could solve two problems at once by moving its chronically welfare dependents out of the slums in Seattle and Spokane where they seemed trapped and out into the pure air of the Olympia peninsula where their welfare checks would inject money into the lagging economy and cause prosperity(!).

The result was pretty much what you’d expect. Crime skyrocketed and law enforcement resources were strained to the maximum. Schools could not cope with the influx of culturally and educationally incompatible kids. The freshly introduced adults had never had to think independently or act when stores, doctors and government offices were 50 miles distant. Housing and environments were trashed. There still weren’t any jobs.  Folks of all stripes left when they could, leaving behind the current lower class who live off casual jobs in the few businesses, pop off an occasional elk, or get welfare, basically the “disabled” receiving SS benefits.

I bring this up because I foresee a similar problem for Kentwood arising from new rules  that the zealots in HUD at the national level are proposing. It seems that this federal department means to eliminate poverty, racism, and what have you, by with holding funds from communities that are not able to show that they have dispersed all classes of citizens into each other; this scheme is supposed to elevate those who can’t afford “decent housing” to the cultural, educational, employment level of those who have earned their presumably “unfair” places in their pleasant, peaceful communities by working and saving for their selfish advantages. (All of this is based on a theory and one or two anecdotes-social engineering is like that.)

Historically, a community like Kentwood could declare that it conformed with HUDs mandates and get the money (which is all that counts.) This didn’t work, so HUD has done extensive study on the epidemiology of where minorities, poor people and the deprived live, or don’t. They have used several “innovative” study techniques and claim infallibility in diagnosing our social pathologies. All of this is in service of intending to tell communities exactly what/where/how they will make provisions to distribute the underprivileged into our neighborhoods.

And therein I see the similarity to the Olympic peninsula of Washington. I don’t know how many of our tax dollars we recover via these HUD grants, but if it’s substantial, we in Kentwood might want to look more deeply into that and similar failed social engineering experiments and marshall the arguments necessary to forestall the lusting of the central planners who are even now collecting comments before implementing their rules

Cops; Preventing Crime, or the Criminal Justice System? Seeing Miscreants through Crosshairs.

The commission will be presented with a proposal to allow the police to use a federal grant to put “scopes” on their AR 15s. (Bushmasters, were M16s in Vietnam and now changed only slightly and still used by our armed forces as M4s.) There is an additional proposal to replace pistols, for what purpose, I know not.

This use and appearance of military weapons in the hands of police makes me uncomfortable; the round from these weapons is an ultra-high velocity, 22+ caliper bit of metal. Its trajectory  tends to be erratic at distance and it bounces around off hard objects until it stops. It can kill at a half-mile and carries to nearly two miles. I don’t know how many homes in Kentwood a round will penetrate, but the second house down is a reasonable guess.

Also, why would one put scopes on these weapons? It allows them to be used at 400 yards out or even further. Where in our town is such a shot necessary or possible? Do we want snipers, whose only role is that of an executioner, in our town?

An ordinary shotgun loaded with slugs is effective out to 100 yards, the round flattens when it hits something and is extremely effective in keeping the peace.

Our police have acquired military hardware because some national policy was adopted after a mass shooting 20 years ago, They are gradually being trained in its use and philosophy of seeing others as enemies. But the police  business was envisioned to be preventing crime, of watching the societal scene and stepping in to apprehend criminals, not serving as the judge and jury for perceived transgressions. The insight that the police are our masters and not protectors is fostered by pictures of cops with tanks and body armor confronting rioters in Ferguson and other backwashes.

We in Kentwood should avoid these appearances; they could get us into serious trouble if some unanticipated social tinder is lit and the police sent to control the situation are filmed with murderous hardware in hand.

Cops, Guardians of our Rights, or Irrelevant to Crime?

Libertarians generally believe in individual responsibility, relegating to the state only that which they cannot easily do for themselves. One such delegation is a monopoly on the use of violence to protect property and lives.  We have become comfortable having police answering 911 calls when some of our rights have been violated. 

I’ts not well known that the history and rationale for policing are comparatively recent nnovations. Until around 1800, cities were small and protection of lives and property was up to the individual and his neighbors. Households had massive doors, sturdy locks and defensive weapons.  A night watch man patrolled after dark, called out the hours and raised the hue and cry when he witnessed crime. Sherifs who investigated crime and arrested miscreants, worked with the county justice system.

The industrial revolution made cities large, wealthy and crime more odious to important people.  A theory based on a few anecdotes emerged that it was better to prevent crime than it was to merely find and punish criminals. Cities would hire men who would walk the streets reminding citizens constantly of the law by watching for suspicious activity. It was thought that this surveillance would forestall crime.  London instituted a police (“polis” is Greek for “city”) force in 1829 and continued it despite evidence that it did not reduce serious crime.  New York City had the first police force in the USA in 1840.

The image of the cops that most of us cherish is of a mildly obese, garrulous, red faced, politically connected Irishman who occasionally used his nightstick on errant youngsters to steer them away from a life of crime, but who was also occasionally “bent.” (Testimonial; I grew up in an neighborhood where bootlegging had been a way of life; all of the distillers’ sons became township policemen; one needed to protect the family business, y’know.)

In the last 75 years or more, cops became expensive and they retreated to cars that cruised larger areas than neighborhoods and became faceless bureaucrats for most residents. I don’t know if this retreat from being personalities was responsible for the crime wave after WW2. Violent crime peaked in the mid 1970s and all crime in 1980 if one believes the numbers since about 50% of crime goes unreported.  Despite the intrusion of violence and theft into individual lives,  governments did nothing until the mid 1990s when President Clinton arranged to hire an additional 100,000 policemen nationwide. “Three strikes” laws were passed in about half of the states. The “broken window” theory was enacted by NY City Mayor Giuliani in 1993 using the controversial “stop and frisk” gambit directed at male minorities. These unconstitutional searches often uncovered “illegal” weapons and chemicals deemed to be “drugs” leading to arrests. Prisons filled up and men disappeared from African American neighborhoods. The US Army donated M16 rifles to domestic police forces after a “terrorist” attack in 1997.  Police could start acting like an occupying army.

Underlying this political posturing the crime wave was disappearing on its own, but that didn’t stop politicians, cops, and social scientists with harebrained schemes from taking credit for the improvement.

As stop and frisk became unpalatable, another subterfuge needed to be deployed. In Kentwood (and in many other cities) our police chief is very proud of his DDACTS program. The following is from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration web site.

Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) is a law enforcement operational model supported by a partnership among the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and two agencies of the Department of Justice: the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Institute of Justice.

DDACTS integrates location-based crime and traffic data to establish effective and efficient methods for deploying law enforcement and other resources. Using geomapping to identify areas that have high incidences of crime and crashes, DDACTS uses traffic enforcement strategies that play a dual role in fighting crime and reducing crashes and traffic violations. Drawing on the deterrent of highly visible traffic enforcement and the knowledge that crime often involves the use of motor vehicles, the goal of DDACTS is to reduce the incidence of crime, crashes, and traffic violations across the country.”

Our chief identifies 4 or 5 high crime areas of Kentwood (understand our public housing) where he concentrates his patrols. The cops stop cars for minor infractions on the ten to fifteen year old beaters that impoverished young black men drive, and surprisingly, they “usually find drugs.” Looking for crime vastly increases the likelihood of finding crime which in turn validates the initial premise that the DDACTS areas are high crime areas. The youthful minorities feel themselves to be under constant surveillance and are justifiably enraged. In a real sense, modern policing leads to crime.

But the battering ram has two ends. Older, settled African American home owners who vote and pay taxes are terrified of these gangs and demand a greater police presence, which they get. (Interestingly, some years ago, the city commission had $300,000 “free government money” to build a park in the historically African American patch in Kentwood. At least 10 individuals showed up at the commission meeting to reject this manna from heaven because they didn’t want to provide a place nearby for gangs to congregate. The park was never built.)

Notice that the focus of policing has subtly shifted from preventing crime to selecting out those who are imputed to be criminal for special attention.

This whole policing philosophy has recently become controversial because abuses and killings of individual African American men by police can now be documented on cell phones and published widely on social and legacy media.  Race baiting groups who thrive on controversy use these images to incite resentful minority youth to riot. The political left indicts poverty and poor public schools in minority communities and the apparent absence of minorities among the politicians and police in the afflicted communities as causing the mayhem. The right points to the the often cobbled together criminal records of the victims and of the justification of self defense that police unions advance.  And so it goes.

Various solutions have been proposed; none good.  The African Americans who vote demand protection, so driving the need for a police presence. Police wearing body cameras is fraught with other personal privacy and legal complexities, More training for police might shift the focus to even more dysfunctional extremes. Picture citizens forced to wear radio frequency emmiters so that police can exclude those without criminal records. 

The current state of affairs has no political solution except the libertarian refrain; we ought to diminish the number of human activities deemed to be criminal, especially those relating to the “War on Drugs” and the notion that it’s the state’s role to turn minor infractions into indictable crimes. 

At a more fundamental level, we could question the whole rationale of “policing” as serving the prevention of crime. There is no reliable data that supports the assertion that “Bobbies” patrolling London after 1830 lowered the crime rate. The city of Kennesaw., an Atlanta, Ga suburb, mandated each household to have an operational firearm with sufficient rounds of ammunition around 1980. Famously, it has about half of Kentwood’s police costs per citizen and also less than half of our crime rate.  The medieval notion that sturdy doors and locks along with an armed citizenry can deter crime at least has the beginning of empirical support.