Shifting Priorities

It's tough for cops to know where to focus their energy as "acceptable" practices change based on the time and place, but decreasing violence is a priority everyone can get behind.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

My priorities have never been particularly in sync with anything that might pass for the norm. But then, I've yet to meet a cop in lockstep accord with every statute on the books.

In my case, a basic libertine philosophy has kept me more concerned with the guy who wanted to take some skin off your nose. The asshole who'd let you decide if you wanted to take a punch to the face or a hit to your wallet.

This was all intuited from an early age, but it took our drill instructors in the Sheriff's Academy to spell out the differences between mala en se crimes (crimes universally acknowledged as inherently wrong), and mala prohibita crimes (acts that were prohibited by societal norms).

The info was at once both edifying and mystifying: What the hell are societal norms?

Oh, I understood the term by definition. I just couldn't find very many actual examples. All I could think was how some things were considered OK simply because of when and where they took place, and who was doing them.

Women could doff their shirts during Mardi Gras and gays could indulge in highly suggestive behavior in West Hollywood and San Francisco - at least on Halloween - but I wondered how that stuff would fly in Salt Lake City (regardless of the holiday).

Statutory laws always seemed problematic, too. I'd bet quite a few kids today have seen more action by the age of 17 than I did before I was 21. Even making allowances for my idiosyncratic personality, I have to say much of this is because sexual mores have evolved over the past 150 years - at least, at a practical level. Certainly, they have evolved more than those on the books, which haven't changed much since the pre-Victorian era.

Many of the chemicals we put in our bodies have at various times been sanctioned or prohibited according to political will or medicinal discoveries. At one time doctors recommended brands of cigarettes and regularly prescribed cocaine and opiates according to the perceived needs of their patients. This November, California voters will have a vote to legalize marijuana (For what it's worth, I'll be voting yes).

Whatever becomes of that voter referendum, it will hardly be the last volley in the war on drugs, and there is no shortage of cops who will continue to be out and about looking for intoxicants, as well as those who buy and sell them.

Hell, I've known cops who made dope arrests the cornerstone of their career, and doubtlessly there were collateral benefits to taking some of the dealers and their patrons off the street. You cast a big enough net, you're bound to catch something.

But their overly focused approach often made these cops ignorant on other fronts. Many of the same cops that paid lip service to drugs being dangerous would continually bag and tag the small fish while leaving the local dope dispensaries untouched. Why would they never go after the problem location? Because that would dry up their stat supply of arrests, silly.

Forfeiture laws were well intended and I still agree with the basic concept, i.e., taking stuff from dealers. The only problem is that some cops knew a good thing when they saw it and were pretty soon bagging properties like real estate agents. And many an exorbitant price was paid by home owners and law enforcement agencies alike.

Drug trafficking has seen corruption infiltrate our ranks elsewhere, with cops not only running interference on behalf of drug dealers - i.e., diming off search warrants - but actually doing hits on behalf of their gang bosses.

On the whole, it would appear that when it comes to its laws this country's states are no more ideologically united than they are geographically. And given the varying degrees of enforcement of its laws according to who is doing the act and where, it is hardly surprising that American law enforcement has historically been even more scattershot than this column.

But this past week I read something that gave me hope. It was on Baltimore PD's experiment in targeting violent offenders.

For decades, Baltimore has had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the nation. Perhaps it was no surprise that HBO's hard edged police drama "The Wire" was based there.

Since coming on board as its police commissioner, Baltimore's Frederick Bealefeld has wanted to do something about the killings.

To that end, Bealefeld has redeployed some of the department's force with a different mission: to identify and track 120 of its most dangerous offenders. As many of these offenders have well established track records and are on parole, the PD is pretty vigilant in taking them down for parole violations.

As Bealefeld told A.P., "I consider possessing a gun on the streets of this city, illegally, a crime of violence."

And should there be any remaining doubt as to his priorities, Bealefeld laid them out.

"I'm not trying to win the drug war. I'm out to win the war on violence and deal effectively with violence."

And the damn thing is actually paying dividends. As of this writing, the city is on pace to have the fewest number of homicides since 1977.

It's accomplished this while making fewer arrests, too.

Criminologists might dispute the wisdom of such approaches - there's still the old "broken windows" argument to be addressed.

And I'm still not buying most mission statements that promise to enforce all laws equally. Nor am I sure what law enforcement's priorities are.

But it's heartening to know that in Frederick Bealefeld, Baltimore has a police commissioner whose own priorities are apparently in the right place.

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