Power and Authority in Criminal Justice Reform

You had to figure Ta-Nehisi Coates would have something important to say in the all-too-over-optimistic debate over the criminal justice reform everybody seems to support without too many specifics. Police shootings, not just ovestuffed prisons or mandatory sentencing, are part of the problem, too. And this is what connects these abuses:

Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. 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.

Before we figure out how to reverse the militarization of the police we ought to first inquire how many inappropriate roles we are asking officers to perform. And then maybe talk about who should actually be performing them, and how.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.