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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Copy What Works in Policing

A reader sent me something which I think would ordinarily have been worthy of a post on its own. A bicyclist who records bad drivers and sends the video to the police is pretty cool, although it still falls behind the Peatonito as my favorite urbanist vigilante story (you just can't beat lucha libre).

But I thought the comment that accompanied the link submission was all the more interesting. Here's what my reader said:

I like everything about this except the part about handing it over to police.
It's a big problem in our society that we structure our legal system in a way that results in many people not trusting it enough to participate. I don't necessarily blame the reader for this comment. We disproportionately focus the striking force of the law on people of color, we focus heavily on longer prison sentences for all manner of crimes, and in the end we often ignore a lot of important dangers to our society because we're too busy going after minor problems. America has a police state problem.

Progressives love colorful vigilantes, but distrust the police.
How can we fix this?
I wanted to suggest a few thoughts on how to turn this reader around, because I, for one, think getting the police to enforce the law on the roads would be a good step. That'll only happen with citizen involvement.

I'd like to suggest that these goals, though not specifically urbanist per se, are central to making urbanism a successful venture.

1. We need to stop criminalizing behavior unnecessarily.

I've been tossing around ideas in my head for how to approach this, but urbanists need to be active in decriminalizing drugs, getting rid of stop-and-frisk types of police enforcement, and opposing new "lifestyle crimes" or "status crimes" as they arise. 

Getting the police out of the business of arresting people for marijuana use, for instance, would be a major coup for urbanism because it would allow resources from policing to be focused onto the truly deadly patterns of impaired driving and speeding. Rhode Island has a serious problem with both of these. Around the country, they kill many tens of thousands of people per year, but we treat someone lighting up and watching Broad City in one's living room as a more serious offense than rushing down a city street past some school children.

2. We need to get the police to enforce driver safety consistently, and with real penalties, but not necessarily with prison time.

Given that a brush with the average Rhode Island driver leaves me wanting to peal the driver's skin off and use it for shoe leather, it's understandable that the urbanist community has been leading the drive for harsher prison time for DUIs and other driver offenses. While I absolutely agree that it's maddening how easily people get completely off the hook from killing pedestrians or bicyclists--or even other drivers, for that matter--I also feel the need to repeat the fact that many very successful societies don't focus on imprisonment as a way of dealing with vehicular manslaughter, and yet still have safer streets than we do. Some of the societies in northern Europe are among the safest in the world, and instead focus on impoundment of vehicles and heavy fines as the way to punish violators who harm people with their cars. The Netherlands, for instance, is so oriented away from prisons that it has begun taking prisoners from other countries to fill its empty jail cells.

I know it makes intuitive sense to throw people in jail. I know it feels good. It's not what works. We advocate that our policymakers copy the Netherlands for its bike infrastructure, so why don't we advocate that it copy the way it deals with illegal uses of cars? When we do, more people will want to send videos of speeding drivers to the police.

3. We need to message to the public about what the real dangers are, so that dumb laws aren't passed criminalizing fake ones. 

I saw a Politi-fact today on the claim that babies can be poisoned by swallowing cigarette butts (it's true). Apparently two children die per day across the country from accidental cigarette poisonings, and this is now a talking point in banning cigarette smoking on beaches.

Galilee, near Point Judith
Personally, I have never smoked, I don't like secondhand smoke, and I have relatives who have died pretty gruesome deaths from smoking. I support having a smoking ban in public buildings like restaurants not only from a public health perspective but because I think it's unfair to force the employees of a restaurant to be exposed to serious health risks at their jobs. But the goal of banning people from smoking cigarettes on the beach to me comes off as being about pushing against a habit that is now regarded as low-class: it's easy to pick on something that only the hoi polloi do. It also annoys me because it completely ignores a much larger danger that is thought of as being just a normal facet of everyday life: cars. Along with the two children who die from unintentionally swallowing cigarettes each year, 7,000 die from car-related deaths. Wildlife is harmed by the provision of parking and large, impervious roads to allow car access to our beaches. And along with the many people who die from car crashes, an even larger number die from the pollution of cars. This is a slightly apples & oranges comparison since it includes adults as well as children, but close to 60,000 people die from car exhaust per year in the U.S., twice as many as die from car crashes. And although second-hand smoke is indeed a killer, it's undoubtedly much less harmful in a ventilated area than inside buildings. The focus now to push smokers out of even the outdoor realm strikes me as totally unnecessary--a kind of Tipper Gore "please, think of the children" crusade for bored suburbanites.

We spent decades working to get parents to stop smoking around their children inside their houses, the way my Nana sometimes did when babysitting me as a kid. Now we're criminalizing outdoor smoking. But where do we expect smoking parents to go if they can't walk around in public places to get their fix? They're going to go right back into the privacy of their homes again, which is where secondhand smoke is going to be most harmful to innocent children.

And, God, try to tell these beach-goers that they can't have a parking spot next to their destination, and they'll probably explode.

What would make more sense would be to put a high fine on littering, which is the real problem. If someone throws their cigarette on the ground, they're being a jerk and should pay. But public spaces shouldn't be subject to status crimes, and that's exactly what criminalizing smoking is.

We should think about how policing fits into the society we want as urbanists. I want a Rhode Island that consistently enforces the law, and that means a police force that is effective. But part of the vision means also being vigilant against undue policing, discriminatory policing, and unnecessary severity in punishment. This is not just about being nice to people. It's about being effective. We should copy what works. And a police state just doesn't.


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