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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Zero-Tolerance Policing

     It seems that more and more police officers are authoritarian types who see everything as either black or white. When it comes to enforcing the law there is no gray. If a cop sees a person breaking the letter of a minor law, or is engaged in behavior he simply doesn't like, that person could be on his way to jail in handcuffs. Policing in this country is becoming more heavy-handed, more zero-tolerant. The police are not only over-enforcing the law (the so-called broken window theory), they are manufacturing crime out of noncriminal behavior. This is what I call the criminalization of America.

     One form of zero-tolerant, heavy-handed policing involves the criminalization of school kid misbehavior such as arresting grade school children for schoolyard fights (assault); carving their initials in their desks (vandalism); truancy; drawing pictures depicting violence;  general classroom misbehavior (disorderly conduct), posessing an aspirin tablet; and carrying something as dangerous as a pocket knife. Any kid caught playing with matches today is marked as a potential pathological firesetter and sent off for psychological help.

     Otherwise law-abiding adults have to deal with speed traps; sobriety checkpoints; jaywalking tickets; rolling through stop sign busts; and thousands of regulatory infractions such as holding a yard sale without a permit. If you park your car in the wrong place, or let the meter expire, in addition to paying a fine, you may have to ransom your vehicle out of an impound lot.

     If, in the war against real criminals, police need the cooperation of law abiding citizens, zero-tolerance policing is not a good way to get it. Too many officers seem unable or unwilling to distinguish between a burglar and someone trespassing across someone's yard to find his dog. Because militarized law enforcement is replacing community based policing, cops have become isolated from the public they are paid to serve. They do not see themselves as public servants but as crime-fighting warriors. Officers with this mindset see everyone as a potential enemy combatant. In this way of thinking, it's not good guys versus criminals, but cops versus everyone.  


     In Illinois you can be arrested for videotaping an on-duty police officer. Citizen's using their cellphones to record police abuse have been arrested, handcuffed and hauled off to jail. Under Illinois law you cannot audio-tape a phone conversation without the consent of the other party. The police are using this law to justify arresting people who have videotaped them in public.

     In 2007, Simon Glik videotaped a Boston police officer using excessive force. The police arrested Glik for this activity. The videotaper fought the case and won. He then sued the Boston Police Department for violating is First Amendment right to record police activity. He won that case as well.

     In California, it's legal to videotape a police officer if the video taker is in a public place and has a right to be there. Police in the state fought against this law and lost.

     In Philadelphia the police have arrested many videotaping citizens. The arresting officers have confiscated and destroyed the offending cellphones. Public outrage over this over-enforcement led the police commisioner, in October 2011, to issue a departmental order declaring it legal for citizens in the city to videotape police officers doing their jobs. Rank and file police officers were not pleased.


     One of the worst speed traps in America was (and possibly still is) on U.S. Route 19 as is passes north and south through Summersville, West Virginia. At this popular interstate shortcut to and from Florida, the speed limit drops from 65 to 50 MPH where traffic cops lie in wait with radar guns. Police in Summersville wrote between 10,000 and 18,000 speeding tickets a year, generating millions in revenue for the town of 3,250.

     Local businessman Charles McCue objected to the speed trap on the grounds it scared away business. He banned police officers from using his shopping center parking lot as a place to clock passing motorists. When that didn't solve the problem, he put up a giant billboard along Route 19 warning drivers of the upcoming speed trap. Although the police were not amused, Charles McCue became a hero to thousands of motorists who managed to get through this town without paying a fine.

     In central Florida, police officers routinely pulled over and fined motorists who flashed their headlights to warn oncoming drivers of an upcoming speed trap. In justifying these tickets, the cops cited a Florida statute that prohibits the flashing of lights except as a means of indicating a turn or to indicate when a vehicle is stopped on the road. Motorists stopped for trying to save their fellow citizens the cost of speeding tickets were fined around a hundred dollars. They were charged with "Improper Flashing of High-Beams." Traffic cops considered this motorist to motorist form of communication "obnoxious and disrespectful" and equated it to obstruction of justice. These officers saw no difference between warning someone of a drug bust and telling a fellow motorist to slow down to avoid a speeding ticket.

     One of the fined "high-beam" flashers filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida on behalf of 2,400 people who had been ticketed for this activity between 2005 and 2010. A few days after the filing of the suit, the head of the Florida Highway Patrol ordered officers to stop ticketing the light flashers until the case is resolved in the courts.


     On September 8, 2011, Alan Ehrlich encountered a traffic-light outage at a major intersection in South Pasadena, California. To bring some order to the traffic chaos, Ehrlich took matters into his own hands. He put on a bright orange shirt and began directing traffic. Within ten minutes he had traffic flowing smoothly again. When a police officer arrived at the scene, instead of thanking Ehrlich and taking over the job, he wrote him a ticket and drove off. Once again traffic became snarled at this intersection. Officers do not appreciate citizens who think they can do police work.


     In Washington, D. C., the police are authorized to arrest drivers if their license plates are more than thirty days out of date. These offenders, under D. C. law, can be fined up to $1,000 and jailed up to thirty days.

     In October 2011, a naval officers was pulled over in D. C. for having an expired Florida plate. The Navy man carried a Maryland driver's license, but lived in D. C. (He kept his legal residence in Florida for voting and income tax purposes.) Because he was in the military, the officer didn't change his driver's license everytime he moved from one state to another. (Military personnel are exempt from having to acquire a new driver's license everytime they move.) The naval officer tried to explain all of this to the police officer. He promised to go home and immediately renew his Florida tags online.

     The D. C. cop ordered the officer out of his car. When a second policeman arrived at the scene, they handcuffed the motorist and hauled him off to jail where they fingerprinted him and took his mug shot. The police released the officer three hours later. While he was incarcerated, his wife, who had sent him out for some fast food, had no idea what had happened to him. The judge who dismissed the case told the Navy man that in two years he could request to have his arrest record sealed.

1 comment:

  1. Re: Video recording of police on-duty

    Cops have been arresting people for video recording them on-duty charging them w/interfering w/police duty or similar sounding offenses. Obviously to skirt the fact that recording is legal, they try to claim the arrestee got too close or refused orders to not stand in their work space. The few I have read about were tossed when the judge or prosecutors saw the video that showed the defendants were yards away from the officers or readily complied to police orders. Just FYI. Cheers.