Ahmed and His Clock

Now that most of the uproar is over, perhaps it would be possible to talk about the brouhaha in Irving, Texas with a little objectivity. First, to make it clear, OneOldCop does not care whether this young man was naive, manipulated by his father, not as clever as some claim, or the next kid destined to graduate from college before he is old enough to drive.

The real problem here is not racism, Islamophobia, or other isms or phobias. Nor, is it a misuse of the “see something, say something” campaign for dealing with domestic terrorism. Rather, it is a totally predictable result of the policies, bureaucratic actions, and litigation that led school districts, police departments, and the rest of the normally rational world to substitute “Zero Tolerance Policies” for common sense and discretion.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the United States began to slide down the slippery slope that led to the situation we have today. The earliest changes that OneOldCop can point to as a possible starting point in Texas were the changes in laws related to domestic violence.

At one time, domestic violence calls were handled like any police call. Officers responded, stabilized the situation, conducted a field investigation, and took whatever action seemed appropriate under the circumstances. Unfortunately, the dynamics of domestic violence often led to officers being forced to leave a scene without taking actions they felt were necessary to protect those involved.

Often, officers were unable to take action against the perpetrator of domestic violence because the injured or threatened party was unwilling to take steps to protect him or herself. This was a problem, and often resulted in more calls or more serious acts of violence. Unfortunately, the only way the bureaucracy and the legislature could find to respond was to change the law.

The changes in the law made officer discretion a thing of the past. They also completely discounted the wishes of the injured or threatened party. The result was a system requiring officers to make an arrest if certain conditions were met, without regard for other factors. It was in essence a legislatively enacted zero tolerance policy.

This seemed like a good idea at the time. Even some police officers felt it was a positive step in some ways. Looking back on how this actually worked, it seems it may not have been that great. It may have helped some victims, but it clearly had many unintended consequences.

Suddenly, a family already in crisis might find itself facing difficult financial issues. Suddenly, someone with no criminal record might find him or herself charged with a serious crime. Suddenly, workloads for police officers and prosecuting attorneys increased, resulting in the need for bigger budgets or reducing the priorities of other police activities.

Supporters of the changes will say it was a necessary change that helped. The reality is it did little to reduce the number of domestic violence incidents. It is likely it reduced the number of reported incidents, but it may have resulted in even more violence when the incarcerated party finally got out of jail.

Using domestic violence as the example of mistaken legislation or regulation is not meant to minimize the serious nature of the crime. It is simply one of the earliest examples this writer could remember. There are other examples of similar changes that have not worked out as planned. One that is receiving a lot of current attention is mandatory sentencing for drug crimes.

Many critics claim the changes made during the so-called war on drugs led to scores of people serving long sentences for relatively minor crimes. Also, it seems many of those convicted under these laws were minorities, raising the specter of disparate impact in the way the laws are enforced and prosecuted. So, one might ask, what does all of this have to do with Ahmed and his clock?

The way Ahmed was handled is a perfect example of well intentioned policies leading to a debacle. School districts and police departments have been coerced into establishing zero tolerance policies as a way of protecting themselves from accusations of disparate treatment or outright discrimination. Anyone apparently violating a law, regulation, or school rule will be treated the same way, initially at least, because the school or police agency involved can fall back on the policy and claim “We treat everyone the same.”

The problem is zero tolerance policies completely do away with judgment, common sense, and discretion. That means someone like the young man in Irving could end up in police custody for what was very likely an ill thought out effort to impress one of his teachers. It also means that, as some have suggested, a devious and attention seeking adult could manipulate a young man like this to create an incident he could use to attack the system or weaken efforts to avoid another tragedy like that at the Boston Marathon or Fort Hood.

At best, zero tolerance policies are a flawed approach to serious problems. At worst, they open the door to abuse of the legal system by those interested in creating legal chaos that might lead to a profit for themselves or reduced safety for others.

© S. E. Jackson – 2015

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One Response to Ahmed and His Clock

  1. oldcowdog says:

    There are seldom easy solutions to complex problems! Well intended fixes created by legislators that don’t totally understand the issues, but feel inclined and pressured to solve all our ills, is an example. An electorate that believes more laws can solve all problems doesn’t help. either.

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