Curt Oldfield of Bonner County, Idaho, has perhaps the most unusually decorated car in the nation. It’s a 1986 Oldsmobile covered with 200 license plates carefully shaped and riveted to the hood, fenders, and doors. It’s driven mostly in parades and auto shows, but one day his daughter, lacking transportation, took it downtown. And a Bonner County sheriff’s deputy gave her a $43 ticket.
Oldfield vows to fight the ticket as a violation of his right to free expression, and perhaps he’ll eventually win. But the conflict points up a larger problem with law enforcement that affects the whole country. For several decades, a “tough on crime” mood has gripped the nation. It led to the re-establishment of capital punishment and to a sixfold increase in the size of the prison population. It has also produced an increase in the number of policemen. Between 1980 and 1996, the number of sworn law-enforcement officials jumped 40 percent, to 738,000 (the figure includes 74,000 federal officers). And since 1996, numbers have been further swelled by President Clinton’s plan to add another 100,000 officers.
At first glance, increasing the number of policemen seems to be a good way to fight crime, but few have stopped to consider the side effects of this policy. Once you’ve hired the personnel, they have to be busy, generating the paperwork that proves they are accomplishing something. It would be nice if this busyness were directed against the serious crimes that we worry about—and which were the reason for hiring the extra policemen in the first place. But unfortunately such crime happens out of sight, and policemen can’t do much about it until after the fact. Therefore, to earn their keep, policemen have to go after the people they do see: our law-abiding friends and neighbors. They have to set up speed traps, pull people over for trivial offenses, and write tickets for people who decorate their cars in unusual ways.
The police aren’t the only ones to blame. The harassment has been facilitated by thoughtless legislators who have crammed the statute books with a vast number of minor offenses, so that practically everything is now against the law, from buying cigarettes if you are under 21, to not having an approved whistle in your canoe. Who would have imagined, for example, that lawmakers would have made it an offense to display more than one license plate? This was the crime that Oldfield committed by decorating his car with license plates.
Another fallacy in the idea of using more police to stop crime involves the problem of recognition. Criminals do not wear sweat-shirts with “Bad Guy” printed on them to enable policemen to single them out. One way police try to find robbers and murderers is to stop and question ordinary people who have done nothing wrong. Increasing the number of policemen therefore means an increase in the number of innocent people who will be harassed and intimidated by officers.
It also means an increase in the number of innocent people shot by police. After all, policemen aren’t perfect. Some fraction of the time they will use their weapons inappropriately, shooting at ordinary people like you and me out of anger, fear, or just through carelessness. Statistics on the aggressive use of force by police are hard to come by because law-enforcement agencies sweep these incidents under the rug. In 1998, the Washington Post undertook an eight-month investigation of the D.C. police department’s use of excessive force during the preceding five years. It found that the police had fired their weapons in 54 incidents, killing nine and wounding 19 people, all of whom were unarmed. The well-known case of Amadou Diallo, an innocent, unarmed black man gunned down by four New York City policemen in 1999 is just the tip of the iceberg. Police shoot at scores, if not hundreds, of innocent, unarmed Americans every year. Increase the number of policemen, and you increase the number of these deplorable incidents.
Hiring lots of policemen may be a way to get tough on crime but, as Curt Oldfield and many other Americans are discovering, it’s also tough on decent, creative people who are just going about their business.