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by Peter Moskos

April 16, 2015

"If I had a hammer... I'd hammer out justice."

This is the second paragraph of an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
When Walter Scott fled from the North Charleston police, he was not merely fleeing Thomas Slager, he was attempting to flee incarceration. He was doing this because we have decided that the criminal-justice system is the best tool for dealing with men who can't, or won't, support their children at a level that we deem satisfactory. Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up, and said to the criminal-justice system, "You deal with this."
Nothing against women's rights advocates, but I haven't heard anybody question the logic of passing laws that lock people up for failure to pay child support. (And while I'm at it, can I just mention that mandatory domestic violence laws are racist, do not work, and have have hurt countless men and women.)

This is the first paragraph. It's just as good:
There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, "Were they justified in shooting?" But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, "Were we justified in sending them?" At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems--homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one's children, mental illness--are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can't be every place.
And this if from the end:
Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors.
I'm pretty sure Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't trying to be pro-cop, but that's the kind of line that will get carried off on cops' shoulders at a police convention!

That last paragraph goes on:
The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It's avoidance. It's a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.
There's more. And you should read the whole thing. But that is my good-parts version.


Anonymous said...

"Were we justified in sending them?"

Don’t know how it works back east, in the big city, but here in my little west coast town it seems that any call to 911 results in an officer being dispatched.
Is your paycheck late? 911 will dispatch an officer to tell you to call the Dept. of Labor and Industries.
Your kid’s having problems at school? 911 will dispatch an officer to tell you to call the principal.
Have a property line dispute with your neighbor? 911 will dispatch an officer to tell you to call a surveyor.
Somebody’s talking trash about you on Facebook? 911 will dispatch an officer to tell you to call the Facebook complaint department.
Feeling depressed or suicidal? 911 will dispatch an officer to tell you to call the Crisis Line.
People call 911 for anything and everything but that’s fine with the 911 center because they get paid to dispatch cops, not to direct people to the services that can actually deal with non-law enforcement problems.

No one cares if it's justified.

Dave- IL said...

Anonymous: "No one cares if it's justified"

This is a good point. In too many cases, police are brought in because an alarmingly high number of people in the US do not know how to handle problems without involving some outside institution. They don't have the education, social skills or family support to deal with life without regular intervention from police or other agencies.

Incidentally, emergency departments are swarmed with the same kind of people. I think especially of teenage girls who I've seen come to ER for "pregnancy tests." Something is wrong here and it goes way beyond policing or healthcare.

David Woycechowsky said...

Beautiful writing -- thanks for linking and excerpting Prof. Moskos. Coates concern about larger social issues is not my personal area of interest, but, it is hugely important -- probably more important than the aspects of police work that do interest me. Glad to see him cover it so well, and to have your blog you to turn me on to what he wrote.

Andy D said...

An absolutely excellent article. Just anecdotally when I was growing up in PA a number of years ago we just didn't call the cops. But I came to Maryland and became a cop and here everyone calls for every. damn. thing. Your 8 year old doesn't want to go to school? Call the cops. You don't like your neighbors new bush? Call the cops. So maybe it is a cultural thing? Some places just don't call the cops for BS?

Noumenon said...

Have you ever expanded on your position about mandatory domestic violence laws in print?

Moskos said...

You would think I had done so, at least on the blog. Or at least I would think so. But searching my blog for domestic violence doesn't turn up anything.

I guess I should.