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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Boys With Toys

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Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn testified before Congress that more federal funding for local police departments would not only stimulate the economy, but also reduce poverty.

By reducing crime, he argued, police bring hope to impoverished communities and stop employers from being driven out of cities where jobs are needed the most.

Flynn wants the money for more community-oriented policing, a law enforcement strategy that puts more officers in neighborhoods—not as an occupying force, but so they can get to know the community and establish trust with citizens.

Flynn credits community-oriented policing with his successful debut as Milwaukee’s chief, reducing all homicides by 32% last year and homicides among African-American males ages 15 to 29 by 65%.

It’s a more humane argument for a never-ending expansion of policing, but the last time the federal government put more money into local departments, under President Bill Clinton, the results were not encouraging. That’s when every police department in the country loaded up on expensive high-tech equipment and ninja-turtle suits just in case not terribly exciting communities suddenly became hotbeds of exploding violent crime or international terrorism.

Police departments acquired enormous stockpiles of expensive junk, much of which their officers had no idea how to use. In a tragic incident in a Milwaukee suburb, a troublesome teenager was fitted with a hood an officer thought was a spit guard to prevent disorderly suspects from spitting at officers. It was actually a mask intended for protection from toxic gas. The young man suffocated to death in the back of the squad car.

Lots of money for local police meant a bonanza for the Taser industry. The idea of a high-tech, nonlethal weapon that could disable violent suspects without killing them was marketed as more humane than the deadly weapons usually employed by law enforcement.

Besides, they were fun to use. They made a suspect light up like a Christmas tree as 50,000 volts of electricity coursed between two electrodes sticking into the body.

Unfortunately, Tasers weren’t so nonlethal after all, and fatalities mounted across the country.

Tasers also were based on a false premise: that police would reach for a nonlethal weapon when they felt personally threatened. That’s not what police officers are trained to do. Under Wisconsin law, police officers are trained to use deadly force whenever they reasonably believe it is necessary to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm” to themselves or someone else. Police refer to these decisions as “three-second events.”

By arming police officers with Tasers, departments were providing a brandnew weapon that sent a bolt of electricity crackling up and down the bodies of people they never would have considered shooting before.

Unintended Consequences

Another popular, extremely expensive and quite possibly worthless tool of crime prevention is the surveillance camera. If cameras do anything at all, they may just move crime to an area that doesn’t have cameras.

But as regular viewers of convenience store surveillance footage on the nightly news, we already know the crime-stopping power of these candid cameras is greatly exaggerated.

Even high-tech police tools that work can have unintended social consequences. Last week, a story in the local newspaper detailed the sudden proliferation of multiple traffic tickets. Police using mobile computers can now issue multiple tickets for one traffic stop at the punch of a button.

Traffic laws serve a dual purpose. Ideally, they are supposed to have something to do with enhancing public safety. But they also are an extremely lucrative source of municipal revenue.

If someone is driving an unsafe vehicle or driving in an unsafe manner, a police stop and a traffic ticket can be an effective deterrent. In the past, officers would limit the number of tickets they would write for any one stop just to avoid getting writer’s cramp.

Besides, the police stop, the ticket and the cold sweat produced have already made the point. Handing out multiple tickets for every conceivable infraction is just piling on.

Municipal judges say people now show up in court with stacks of tickets running into hundreds and hundreds of dollars. It’s a breeze for officers to spew out as many as possible—and it’s a revenue windfall.

Have we mentioned poorer people with older cars in highly policed neighborhoods experience a lot more traffic stops than wealthier people with nicer cars? Milwaukee traffic tickets increased 64% in the first three months of the year, mostly on the backs of its poorest citizens.

Chief Flynn is right. Good policing requires actual human contact to get citizen cooperation and develop trust between police and the community. But if we’re going to pump more money into our police departments, we need to make sure it’s spent on intelligent strategies to improve public safety.

Otherwise, it will just go for more toys for the boys.

Comment on this article at ExpressMilwaukee.com.