June 25, 2008

No Tolerance for No-Tolerance

     Some folks think the proliferation of “no-tolerance” laws and policies in today’s culture are great and send a stern message. Perhaps, but what if it’s the wrong message? I’m a cop and you’d think I’d love to “stick it” to the bad guys—I do, but that’s not always what happens. Sometimes, in knee-jerk, do-something responses to emotional incidents, some people tend to overreact and overreach. In a free society cops, prosecutors, and judges are rightly given discretion, because crimes should be assessed on a case by case basis. Not all crimes or criminals are equal; there are degrees.

     Here’s an example: Let’s say dispatch sends officers to a report of kids drinking in the park—teenagers having a “kegger” at the end of the school year. And let’s say there is a, “no-tolerance” policy in effect for any kid caught with any alcohol. (Like no one in high-ranking positions ever used alcohol when they were under age.) Any kid caught drinking, or with an open container, regardless of any association with driving, will be issued a citation and will loose his or her driver’s license. Great! Right? Well, hold on.

     I arrive at the park, stroll down a grassy hill toward the party. The kids see me and despite my order to stop, they scatter en masse, slip-sliding down the slick slope. Only a few kids remain behind. These kids are cooperative, sober, and say they’d just arrived and only had the cups of beer they were each holding.

     My inclination: Scold them about what they’re risking, call their parents, and then release the kids to them. Sounds reasonable, right? Screech! (Hard brakes) You’re forgetting about one thing: The no-tolerance policy. I have no discretion. I arrest the kids, transport them to the precinct, issue Minor in Possession citations, and then release them to their parents. They’ll each be issued a summons to appear in court and will likely lose their driving privileges. And the arrest could affect their future college, military, or job options.

     Now, you might say they got what they deserved. Okay, maybe, but what about all those kids who ran? What’s their penalty for, first drinking alcohol while a minor, and then disobeying a police officer’s order to stop and fleeing? Zilch! Nadda! Nothing! So, because of “no-tolerance” the cooperative kids receive a very stiff sanction, while the true “criminals” receive nothing. Oh, there is one thing both groups of kids learn: That running from the police, rather than cooperating with them, is the better way to go in the future.

     No tolerance laws and policies are the coward’s way out. They’re for people who are afraid to make the hard decisions. Well, in a free society, enforcing the law is all about discretion and hard decisions. Totalitarian societies create no-tolerance laws, because they’re interested in compliance—in dominance, not in justice. True justice derives from discretion.

     On the other hand I won’t argue that those who abuse or misuse their discretion taint the system for everyone, and create emotional calls for these types of laws. I say put down the shotgun and hold these people to account, individually. In a no-tolerance society, for every bad guy who gets what he “deserves,” five good guys, who may have done a bad thing, get more than they deserve.



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