Thinking Again About Crime

When the citizens of Ferguson and other communities pushed back against the criminal justice system, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was on the scene. Now he has some thoughts worth considering.

Chris Hayes, host of the eponymous All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, published his first book in 2012, The Twilight of the Elites, which went after a big topic—the disconnect between American leadership and the people. It was smart, wise, and, as we saw in the last election, prescient.

In A Colony in a Nation, Hayes once again takes on an important subject: policing and incarceration. It is a mercifully slender book that is a breezy mix of coming-of-age memoir, reporter’s notebook, and tour of the scholarship on the way justice is administered in the United States. It’s a topic of deep interest to Hayes, who was on the ground for MSNBC in Ferguson during the troubles in that Missouri town, and in West Baltimore when another police-induced death led to rioting.

A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes W. W. Norton, 256 pp.

A Colony in a Nation
by Chris Hayes
W. W. Norton, 256 pp.

A veteran of the Nation and In These Times, Hayes starts with the premise that is now prevalent in liberal circles: the war on crime went too far. Too many Americans, especially African American men, are incarcerated. In poorer neighborhoods, police are too brutal, too much of an occupying force, too obsessed with enforcing petty ordinances (loitering, walking in the road) and making a fetish of the “order” part of “law and order.” At its worst—as the Justice Department inquiry showed was the case in Ferguson—municipalities have come to depend on an obscene series of escalating fines as an important revenue stream.

The sharp increase of the prison population has roused the ire of some conservatives, too, such as Rand Paul and Grover Norquist—though not, notably, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. The roots of the problem are also on the conservative side. The title of Hayes’s book comes from a speech by Richard Nixon, who returned to power in 1968 on the theme of law and order. Nixon crafted a vocabulary that, while ostensibly sympathetic to black
aspirations—he lamented that ghettos were becoming colonies—also revved up the criminal justice machine in a way that would lead to the draconian anti-drug Rockefeller laws in New York State in the 1970s, the war on drugs in the Reagan ’80s, and the crime bill of the Clinton ’90s.

Raised in a middle-class Bronx neighborhood, the son of a Jesuit seminarian turned community organizer, Hayes is genuinely empathetic toward the plight of communities of color who grow up in the tougher areas of the borough and who bristle under what they see as brutal policing. But he also has the white outer-borough fear of crime, and sympathy for police officers, regardless of their race, who are stuck in thankless jobs where, unlike their counterparts most everywhere in the world, they have to assume because of America’s gun culture that every encounter is potentially lethal. When he tries out a police simulator in Morris County, New Jersey, that tests an officer’s reaction to various scenarios—angry residents, a guy illegally dumping trash and menacingly wielding a cement block—Hayes is too quick to reach for his virtual gun and realizes anew what scared cops face.

At times, though, his liberal guilt gets the better of him. The book opens with an anecdote of him calling the cops when he hears a couple arguing on the street near his home. The man sounds menacing, but Hayes is worried that summoning the police might escalate the situation. He impugns his own motives for reaching out to the authorities, asking himself if he was genuinely worried about the woman’s safety or just wanted peace and quiet, as if that were a shameful impulse. In the tent pole anecdote at the end of the book, Hayes has similar ambivalence about calling the cops on a group of teens in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park who had gone from harassing passersby to swiping a smartphone. Hayes knows the criminal justice system that awaits any arrested adult, let alone juvenile, so he hesitates to call the cops.

I admire the empathy behind this, but Donnez moi une break. The instinct that led him to phone the cops about the couple struck me as a wholly admirable one, in a Rear Window kind of way, where being nosy is good and willfully ignoring abusive language and attitude toward a woman summons up echoes of the famed Kitty Genovese murder. No one wants to see adolescents caught up in a juvenile justice system if it can be avoided. But the costs of not calling the cops on those kids in Prospect Park are considerable—a citizen could take the law into their own hands, the kids might escalate, and so on.

On the large question of how we mete out justice in America, however, Hayes is persuasive: we have two systems that, if not separate and unequal, can at least be seen as divided into forgiving and brutally calculating. (Hayes wisely notes the sympathy toward white, rural opioid users that was conspicuously absent when it came to black, urban crack users.) I wouldn’t draw the colony/nation lines quite as starkly as he does, but there are clearly parts of the country where the police are your friends and parts where you’re scared of them; parts where you’re quite confident that a traffic stop, while annoying, won’t lead to dire consequences and others where black parents give their children “the Talk.” This isn’t a new observation, but Hayes renders a portrait of our country coolly and starkly.

How did we get here? One big inflection point was, of course, the 1994 crime bill, authored by Joe Biden and signed by Bill Clinton. It was, as Hayes notes—though too briefly—a hodgepodge of competing ideas: more prison construction and harsher sentencing, demanded by Republicans; a ban on assault weapons, insisted on by Democrats; and federal grants to put more cops on the street and train departments in community policing techniques, promoted mostly by Clinton himself. Hayes has a good appreciation of the complexities of how the legislation emerged as an uneasy compromise. This nuanced take stands in contrast to, say, the Oscar-nominated film 13th, by Selma director Anna DuVernay, which portrays the bill as a product of bigotry. (It is worth noting that two-thirds of Congressional Black Caucus members in the House voted for the legislation.)

If the mass reduction of crime is a societal good—and Hayes spends far too little time acknowledging that it is really a boon, not only for hipsters who can safely comb alphabet city and Brooklyn, but for us all, most of all residents of lower-income neighborhoods who are most disproportionately the victims of crime—then it behooves us to proceed with de-incarceration deliberately and speedily but also thoughtfully. Just as warehousing mental patients was a mistake in the first half of the twentieth century, and releasing them en masse without services in the second half was a tragic error, we should get it right this time.

Hayes’s model of how to shut down the conveyor belt of young minorities into prison is intriguing, but not compelling. The thirty-eight-year-old looks to apply to poor neighborhoods the live-and-let-live tolerance that he experienced at Brown University at the hands of the campus police, who looked the other way at pot smoking and general disorder. (He does allow that such laissez-faire policing allowed some of his contemporaries to end up with serious addictions.)

Still, it’s not bigoted to say that exporting ideas that might work on college campuses could be disastrous in high-crime neighborhoods. Hayes is tough on the famed 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly in which the political scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the idea of “broken windows” policing, the aim of which is to crack down on modest crimes, like graffiti and petty vandalism, not only to make law-abiding citizens feel more secure but also to drive down rates of more serious crimes. In the view of Hayes, who tends to treat the drop in nationwide crime as a mystery, the gains from “broken windows”–inspired policing were, at best, modest, and its abuse made the colony even more oppressive. I think he’s too dismissive of the gains. In 1990, when he became chief of the New York City transit police, Bill Bratton put the broken windows theory to the test by dramatically increasing arrests of turnstile jumpers. Many of these individuals turned out to be serious criminals carrying weapons and wanted for other crimes. Within two years, annual subway felonies dropped from 17,497 to 12,199. By 2000, the number had fallen to 4,263. In 2015 it was 2,502.

Such aggressive policing can be taken too far, of course—New York City’s excessive use of stop-and-frisk being Exhibit A. When Bratton returned for his second stint as the city’s police commissioner in 2014, he cut back on the stop-and-frisk tactic, widely despised by minorities, by 90 percent. Despite predictions by his predecessor Ray Kelly that crime would soar, the crime rate actually continued to fall. The point is that tolerating disorder can wind up doing more harm than good.

I wish Hayes had written more about good police departments, such as in Dallas, where transparency and community policing rebuilt trust between cops and residents while lowering the crime rate, so apparent on the 2016 summer night when cops posed for selfies and peacefully supervised a protest against police brutality in other cities before a madman began shooting officers with a rifle. But that’s a quibble. Anyone who wants to wrestle with race and justice, crime and punishment, in America will have to wrestle with Chris Hayes’s ideas, reporting, and humanity.

Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the political editor at Newsweek.