Because of an editing error, the Aug. 15 How I See it column, "Trivial Pursuits and Predatory Policing," said that Fairfax County conducted 316 sobriety checkpoints last year; that figure was for all of Virginia. (Published 8/22/04)
Falls Church Police Chief Robert T. Murray imposes a quota on his officers: They must write an average of three tickets or make three arrests per 12-hour shift. The most obvious way to fulfill the requirement is to focus on trivial infractions. "Traffic is a big issue" in his community, says Murray, because serious crime is not.
That may surprise the two men who were assaulted and robbed recently on Monticello Drive. One victim, who was riding his bicycle to his Falls Church home, happened upon six suspected gang members as they brutally assaulted another Falls Church man. After robbing the first victim, these hoodlums assailed the cyclist and stole his bike.
Fairfax County police logged that incident about 2 a.m. July 30. About the same time, according to other police reports, criminals were robbing an Arlington business and stealing a car from Kirkwood Street; breaking into a warehouse and a school in Alexandria; and stealing another car. Later that day, an Arlington man was robbed at gunpoint by thieves who shot him -- out of annoyance because he was carrying so little money -- and then stole his car.
And what were Fairfax County police doing that day? At least some were conducting a sobriety checkpoint in McLean. This checkpoint produced predictably paltry results -- of the 591 cars that passed through the blockade between 11 p.m. and 2:15 a.m., police found only three drivers to cite for driving under the influence.
Why, with vicious thugs on the loose, do police waste time on trivial pursuits and ineffective tactics? It isn't as though serious crime is hard to find in Northern Virginia. In a single week earlier this month, Fairfax County police logged 159 cases of larceny and 21 auto thefts. Open-air drug markets -- well known to police -- operate with impunity.
Yet citizens who dislike seeing their taxes wasted have no one but themselves to blame. We have created a climate that hinders -- even hamstrings -- effective policing.
For instance, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, provides stunningly specific data about the distribution of illegal drugs in Northern Virginia.
"West African and Middle Eastern criminal groups are the primary transporters of Southwest Asian heroin into Virginia," the NDIC reports.
"Mexican brown powdered heroin and Mexican black tar heroin available in Virginia typically are transported into the state from southwestern states and North Carolina by Mexican criminal groups.
"Dominican and African American criminal groups are the dominant wholesale and mid-level distributors of South American heroin in Virginia."
The average cop on the beat in Virginia almost certainly is aware of these patterns, but an officer who targets the likely suspects risks being excoriated for "profiling." Is it any wonder cops turn to menial matters when they are criticized for intelligent policing?
Citizens also bear the blame for tolerating tactics that use law enforcement to produce revenue. For example, sobriety checkpoints not only yield negligible results, they may even be counterproductive. How many more tragedies could be prevented by patrolling for impaired drivers? Nonetheless, Virginia police set up roadblocks weekly because that allows them to collect millions of dollars in grant money from the federal government -- and profits from a windfall of tickets.
Consider that Fairfax's 316 checkpoints last year yielded only 770 arrests for DUI, but 7,209 citations for other infractions -- e.g., incorrectly installed child seats, expired property stickers, non-use of safety belts, etc. Corralling citizens to sift for a few miscreants is precisely what the Fourth Amendment prohibits, but officials promote it and citizens acquiesce because dragnets are so lucrative.
Most police officers are courageous people whose talents are wasted in setting trivial traps. And, surely, most Virginians would prefer being protected to being harassed. But effective law enforcement needs a political climate in which facts can prevail over political correctness -- and where local officials are willing to eschew the revenue produced by predatory policing.
Criminals in Northern Virginia, sleep soundly.