Is Police Reform a Myth?

UnknownTa-Nehisi Coates again caught my attention and thinking in his article last June in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”

Now he has again challenged me with another piece, “Is Police Reform a Myth?” It made me think about the difference between coercive power and legitimate authority.

My entire concept of a democratic police is based on the latter: that police are trusted and able to effectively work in, especially, poor neighborhoods because they are GIVEN authority by earning it.

Police in a democracy are to gain compliance from the public by respect, and ultimately trust — not by fear.

Coates would most likely argue against the role of the police that I have worked on and proposed all these years. I think he believes police no longer have legitimacy in neighborhoods populated by poor people and those of color. And, therefore, without support of the community (legitimacy), the only way police can operate in those communities is through the exercise of coercive power which tends to erode our nation’s values.

Are we seeing the public’s trust of police crumble before our very eyes today? Is this the crisis in which we find ourselves?  Have police squandered the trust of black America by the killing of those who are unarmed?

I wonder about this. I was a cop for over thirty years, have I been a pawn to “keep the peace” in an unfair system in which the promises and fruits of America have not been evenly distributed? Have I been an actor in our system of criminal justice that is used to hold down (incarcerate) those who are angry and react against this unfairness rather than working toward the improvement of their condition? This sounds like a sociological domination system to me. A new Jim Crow? Those who have means and wealth use police and the rest of the justice system to control those whom they refuse to help by refusing to share and support programs that help level our economic playing field — a decent education, job, housing, health care — a piece of our “American pie”?

Account after account tells us of the historical and contemporary racial disparities in America and yet we still are unable or unwilling to bridge the gap; reduce the disparity between whites and blacks.

Having failed that, are we now depending on our police to hold down angry people of color instead of addressing and solving these problems, these disparities?

I hope not. I will still argue for “community workers in blue;” a smart, educated, diverse group of well-trained men and women who are committed to making America work for everyone, being fair and respectful, working with those whom they serve to solve social and community problems, and when force must be used it is always carefully controlled and avoids taking anyone’s life.

Is this too much to expect?



  1. I have been wondering aloud whether the biggest lesson from Ferguson is not that we have a law enforcement problem but that we cannot resolve deep racial divisions. Allowing this to be primarily a law enforcement problem lets too many people off the hook.


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