Morris: Police Reform
by Leo Morris
You probably know what you think about murder, rape, arson and all sorts of other abhorrent crimes. But how do you feel about jaywalking and littering?
It’s not as trivial a question as it might seem.
Laws against jaywalking save lives. It is true that most car-pedestrian collisions happen at intersections, but more pedestrians are killed when they are hit while jaywalking. Since pedestrian deaths now account for a higher proportion of traffic fatalities than they have in the past 33 years – going up 27 percent just from 2007 to 2016 while overall traffic fatalities decreased by 14 percent, all according to the Governors Highway Safety Association – more than a few lives are at stake.
On the other hand, jaywalking is among a whole class of selectively enforced offenses – loitering, spitting on the sidewalk and curfew violations among them – that have routinely ignored unless somebody in authority wanted to target some “undesirable” individual or group for whatever reason. Such arbitrariness and capriciousness have contributed much to disrespect of the law in this country.
So, keep jaywalking laws or ditch them?
Littering is among the lesser offenses targeted by officials under the “broken window” concept of law. Minor violations such as graffiti, shoplifting, petty vandalism and “fare-jumping” on public transit are vigorously enforced on the theory that criminals will move on to more major offenses when they notice the minor ones aren’t being prosecuted.
The practice has yielded dramatic results in a significant reduction of violent crimes in large cities across the country, especially in New York where it was pioneered. But it also resulted in a significant increase in the number of young minority men jailed in the cities where it was used, leading to, among other things, fuel for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Is the broken-window theory worth the effort, or are the costs too high?
I raise these examples as a caveat to consider amid the apparently universal adoration for the police-reform bill just out of the Indiana General Assembly.
It was passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature, has the approval of law enforcement organizations, is supported by various civil rights organizations and will be undoubtedly signed by the governor with magniloquent praise for everyone involved in this brave step forward for Hoosier decency.
But my suspicion is that something so widely accepted might not have been that closely examined, and I worry about what might be missing.
Please don’t misunderstand. The bill is aimed at greater accountability and transparency for police. It covers everything from use-of-force training to body-camera funding and disclosure of officers’ backgrounds.
And that’s a good thing. We are all at the mercy of police, who have the power of the state behind them and the lethal force to uphold it. We have to trust them to respect them and respect them to obey them. Our police should be the best among us, not just professional but as honest and fair as they are tough.
But we can’t just praise the police and let it go, any more than we can admire a great army without caring whether it fights in support of a constitutional republic or a despotic tyranny.
Police work to enforce a body of laws on behalf of a community. It matters what the laws are and what the community expects from police and allows or forbids them to do. Police are just the point of the spear. We must also be watchful of those who control the spear and to what ends they use it.
Will police, for example, really be allowed to see just the breaking of a law, with all lawbreakers treated equally? Or will they be asked to replace one group that used to get favored treatment with a different group now owed greater deference?
When will they be asked to look the other way? Some cities have already tried this with lax enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, never mind how that trade might be linked to human trafficking. With Illinois and Michigan approving recreational marijuana use, some will pressure Indiana police to back off from enforcement here, never mind how much traffic safety might be affected.
And what about a court system that uses arrests as mere fodder for plea bargaining, to the point where minor offenses often get greater sentences than heinous crimes, some hardened criminals go scot free and others are pressured to plead guilty just to avoid bankruptcy?
Speaking of laws, how about taking a look at their proliferation? There are so many offenses being added every day, often with the stroke of a pen rather than by vote of a legislature, that attorney Harvey Silverglate once noted that the average American inadvertently commits three arguable felonies in a given day.
The examples could go on and on, but the point is that police on the front lines are just one part of a vast criminal justice system so broken that it needs rethinking locally, statewide and nationally, from top to bottom.
So, the proper response to police reform in Indiana is not, “Great job.” It is, “Good start; now what?”
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.