Myth vs. Fact in Police Reform: How Progressives Make the Perfect the Enemy of the Good

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

In a piece published yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that police are used as a backstop of force to deal with social problems they are ill-equipped to handle. But in making this case, Coates makes the perfect the enemy of the good, choosing systemic solutions he never even articulates over the practical one most people already agree on: body cameras.

Coates opens with an interesting premise, i.e. that police have become the veritable hammer to which every problem appears as a nail:

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.

I’m sympathetic to the general point Coates is making. Police are an extension of government power, and that power is designed to respond in extreme situations. Once called to the scene of an incident, police do not back down or wait to see what develops. They take charge and will err on the side of protecting themselves and others, with deadly force if necessary.

So when Coates asks, “Were we justified in sending them?” he asks a question worth asking. The problem is that he doesn’t really get around to answering the question. For instance, Coates asks whether Walter Scott, the man shot in the back by a police officer in Charleston, SC, should have been stopped at all. “Was Walter Scott’s malfunctioning third-brake light really worth a police encounter? Should the state repeatedly incarcerate him for not paying child support?” Let’s consider these in order.

The federal mandate for high-mounted brake lights was initiated in 1985, during the Reagan administration. At the time, the Department of Transportation judged that the new requirement would result in “900,000 fewer rear-end accidents” per year and up to 40,000 fewer injuries. And because police are responsible for enforcing road safety, it became their responsibility to pull people over and ticket them for a broken 3rd light, just as they would for any other broken tail light or headlight. What conceivable way is there to insure compliance with road safety laws other than police pulling people over for violations? Coates doesn’t say what this alternative, police-free road safety regimen might look like.

As for child support, family law is part of the justice system. Judges and attorneys reach judgments about what is fair, but ultimately those decisions are enforced by police and, yes, by jails. Should Walter Scott have been jailed in the past for failure to pay child support? The answer is “yes,” unless we’re prepared to say failure to pay child support should not be treated as a serious legal matter. Is that what Coates thinks? How would it work, exactly? What prompts fathers to pay back support if there are no consequences? Coates doesn’t offer anything in the way of an alternative.

Most people, black and white, agree that neither the tail light nor the back child support justified shooting Walter Scott in the back. The cop who did it has been fired and is going on trial for murder. That cop was wrong, but was the entire system of child support and road safety laws wrong, too? Probably not. In fact, if Officer Slager made that argument in court (“It wasn’t me, your honor, it was the whole damned system”), he would hopefully be laughed at.

Coates then considers a series of other recent victims of police shootings but, conveniently, leaves out facts that led to the deadly confrontations with police:

Last week I was in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was informed of the killing of Tony Robinson by a police officer. Robinson was high on mushrooms. The police were summoned after he chased a car. The police killed him.

Coates makes it sound as if some hippie got high and started acting silly, chasing cars… and then police killed him. Here’s what Coates fails to mention. Robinson did more than just harmlessly chase a car. He also punched a stranger in the street for no reason:

“I’m like one or two meters away from him and he lifts his right arm and points at me and he said something about ‘punch.’ I hear that… and then I realize it’s too late. I stepped back but it’s just too late,” he said.

He didn’t lose consciousness or fall to the ground, but he said he lost his balance. At that point, he called 911.

Is there any reasonable case to be made that police should not have been called to deal with Tony Robinson? And what is the underlying societal problem that should have been addressed prior to this incident? Is there some system Coates envisions where young men taking illegal hallucinogens will be protected from negative outcomes should they subsequently lose their minds and start punching people in the street? What does that system look like? Coates doesn’t say.

A month earlier, I’d been thinking a lot about Anthony Hill, who was mentally ill. One day last month, Hill stripped off his clothes and started jumping off of his balcony. The police were called. They killed him.

A man was acting bizarrely, rolling in the grass semi-naked and jumping off his balcony. When he tried to speak, he was reportedly incoherent. Police were called, and when they arrived, Hill reportedly charged toward them and, allegedly, was shot before he got close enough to harm anyone.

Hill clearly had mental problems and may have been taking medication that caused his behavior. All of that to say, his behavior may not have been his fault. I certainly wish he had received the help he needed and that police had found a non-lethal way to subdue him. They did not and that is cause for concern. But what exactly is the underlying fault of the system here?

Perhaps there’s some case to be made for more careful monitoring of bipolar patients taking medication. But Coates doesn’t make that case. Under the circumstances, who other than the police is prepared to deal with potentially violent behavior, whether that behavior is the result of mind-altering drugs or a combination of drugs and mental illness?

I can’t see the image of Tamir Rice aimlessly kicking snow outside the Cleveland projects and think of how little we invest in occupying the minds of children. A bored Tamir Rice decided to occupy his time with a airsoft gun. He was killed.

Again, Coates leaves out the reason police were called. Someone observed Rice outside holding a gun and pointing it at people. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher they thought it was probably a fake gun, and, in fact, it was. Rice had an airsoft gun with the orange cap removed, making it look very much like a real gun. The tragedy in this case is that the caller’s statement that the gun probably wasn’t real did not make it to the police sent to the scene. The dispatcher failed to repeat this critical part of the call. Police pulled up, saw Rice allegedly reach for his (toy) gun, and shot him immediately.

There’s no doubt this case is heartbreaking. Rice was a bored kid (ill-advisedly) playing with a toy gun. But was it wrong to call police? What if instead of Tamir Rice this had been 15-year-old Tyfine Hamilton? Hamilton was just another bored black teenager in a hoodie who last month allegedly shot a man as he begged for his life. Hamilton and his friends supposedly wanted to rob the victim but ran off without taking anything. They literally shot him for nothing. So it’s fair to ask: who was going to approach Tamir Rice to find whether the gun was real?

And what “broad societal problem” underlies the Rice case? Coates seems to suggest a lack of investment in bored teens. Rice was shot on a Saturday, a day off from school. Whose responsibility is it to find a bored 12-year-old something productive to do on a Saturday? Does Coates want to argue for 6-day-a-week schooling? Does he want to argue for weekend work permits for 12-year-olds? What is his plan to deal with the scourge of bored teens with nothing to do in bad weather?

Coates wants to put everything down to a failure of the system but he can’t really explain how he would have prevented law-breaking, violent or potentially violent individuals from having encounters with the police in any of these cases.

The one practical recommendation Coates does mention in passing, body cameras for cops, seems like the thing most likely to have a positive impact on police interactions. And best of all, it’s a solution to the immediate problem which nearly everyone seems to support already (88% support in this recent poll). Maybe we should go with that rather than let the vague notions Coates fails to even articulate become the enemy of the good.


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