Comedian John Oliver satired municipal violations this week, and he made a very valid point. Much of what law enforcement does is counterproductive and leads to a vicious cycle for the poor which he dubbed the “F&€k Barrel.” While I have always tried to consider the ultimate outcome of my actions, and the avoided placing people in the F&€k Barrel, I must admit that his piece caused me to reconsider some of the things I do every day at work. I do believe there is more that I and my cohorts can do to better match our actions to our oaths.
If you haven’t seen the video, watch it here.
Stop Enforcing Petty Laws
As I noted above, there are a number of laws, which criminalize things that really hurt no one other than the person being cited. These range from jaywalking to vehicle registration violations, and chances are, if the officer looks hard enough, he can find just about anyone in violation of something. If some dude gets his legs broken by a car, when he’s jaywalking, isn’t that punishment enough? Sure, stop people and tell them about such violations, and if your agency allows it, write them a written warning, to document your efforts, but leave it at that.
Don’t Arrest On Warrants For Fines
While not writing new tickets for petty violations will help reduce the depth of the hole people must claw their way out of, letting arrest warrants for unpaid fines sit unserved is equally important. As Oliver pointed-out in his piece, taking people to jail for unpaid fines is really no different than resurrecting the long abolished debtor’s prisons of old. Even though the original citation might have been class-neutral, arrest warrants for law violations described as “fine-only” are effectively for the poor only. Let’s leave the to the “fine-only” stuff to the debt collectors.
Publicize Resistance to Your Efforts
Ask just about any officer, and they will tell you that they hate writing tickets, because they’d rather be looking for real criminals (which is why we especially hate getting that lecture from citizens). So if you take a stand on fine only offenses, and you get negative pressure from your supervisors, publicize it. If you see it coming, record it, but if not, you can always document conversations with your cohorts, and use them as evidence of your supervisors actions. After all, even if you’re not taking a stand, most supervisors pressure their officers to write more tickets anyway, and that’s close enough.
Are Petty Citations Classist or Racist?
The last thing any department wants is public attention to the parts of their activities which do not serve the public interest, especially if it smacks of discrimination. Even if your department and officers do not discriminate against people based on their appearances, the fact of the matter is that people of color are disproportionately represented among the lower income levels, and a story about disparate impact on the poor is sure to be turned into a debate about indirect racial discrimination.
Thank You Mr. Oliver!
As I stated in the beginning, I am far from innocent here. I thank Mr. Oliver for opening my eyes to the unintended consequences of our actions, and I vow to do my best to fight injustice, wherever it might be found.
What do you think? Is there something else officers do that is discriminatory in effect? Is there something else officers could do to reduce unjustified negative impact on citizens?