Law enforcement exists to keep the peace. It’s no secret they have a tough job to prioritize public safety while also upholding individuals’ constitutional rights. They must be fair and objective to all people without favoring or unfairly targeting specific individuals.
Their efforts should be focused on a clear and narrow purpose, without regard for generating revenue or asserting the dominance of political power. And most of them are doing their best to accomplish this goal every single day – but they need your support.
Much of your influence on law enforcement will come as you ensure that the ordinances and regulations they are enforcing are reasonable and legitimate. Criminalizing insignificant infractions can lead to unnecessary altercations.
In creating any new law, your goal should be to minimize the unnecessary interactions between private residents and law enforcement. You can do this by thoughtfully enacting law only when it furthers the goal of protecting the health and safety of your community. A review of existing law that could be overly punitive is also in order.
The balance between too little and too much law enforcement can be high-stakes and difficult to strike. Law enforcement can serve as an effective preemptive attack on crime and harm.
You might be thinking: if it is possible to stop harm before it happens, isn’t that a great option? This is a legitimate question. Before you commit to that strategy, though, consider that, as technology develops, the opportunities to infringe on freedom in order to preempt harm will increase exponentially.
With no principles guiding what law enforcement can and cannot do, there are no limits. We recommend you focus your law enforcement efforts on activities that have a direct and causal relationship to real and articulable harms.
In response to this proposition, many might assert that having a proactive, predictive, and involved law enforcement agency is worth any associated costs — the argument being that the benefits of prevented harm and crime far outweigh any potential infringements on freedom.
This might be a compelling case, depending on the nature of your locality. In making this determination, please consider two questions.
First, do your law enforcement efforts unfairly target a group or person? Would your efforts be fair if they were applied to your entire constituency?
Secondly, what kind of issues are you targeting and focusing on? If your law enforcement officers are getting involved in disputes over the state of someone’s lawn, for example, you might want to reconsider the principles governing that involvement.
“Equal laws protecting equal rights: the best guarantee of loyalty and love of county.” —James Madison
When it comes to law enforcement, there are a lot of excuses to charge people with fines and fees.
On the one hand, there are administrative costs that must be met. On the other hand, you want to deter people from violating the law. But be careful about what money you charge people for violations.
One Common Approach: Ticketing as Revenue Generation
In many cases, local governments will collect massive amounts of money through ticketing or other fines and fees and use it as a source of funding for general purposes.
Law enforcement should not be used to generate revenue for the city. Where fines and fees are put in place, they should be reasonable and directly related to a violation of law or cost to the city.
Government agents should not be looking for an excuse to fine people in order to help fund the government or increase their agency’s budget.
Furthermore, fines and fees should not balloon to unreasonable amounts that create an undue burden on your residents. If certain violations are so frequent that the subsequent fines make up large portions of a government’s budget, consider taking a different, and possibly more effective, approach to the issue or, if doing so is not a problem, amending your local ordinances.
A Better Way: Lowering the Burden of Fines and Fees
Make your fines and fees reasonable. While they can serve an important purpose, you should be careful not to let fines or fees become excessively burdensome. This will cultivate negative relationships between your constituents and law enforcement, and it will also likely violate state statute.
Utah law specifies that “the governing body of a municipality may impose a criminal penalty for the violation of any municipal ordinance by a fine not to exceed the maximum class B misdemeanor fine.” The maximum class B misdemeanor fine is $1,000. 2121 U.C.A § 10-3-703.
Utah statute also specifies that “a municipality may not issue more than one infraction within a 14-day time period for a violation . . . that is ongoing.”
Your ability to fine individuals is capped at $1,000. For an ongoing violation, you may not issue a fine more than once every two weeks. In most cases, a $1,000 fine every 14 days will be excessive. Your monetary penalties should be as minimal as you can possibly make them.
You may even be able to work with the justice court judges to allow community service in lieu of a fine. While this option is allowed for in state code, it’s not being proactively offered so many people just don’t know about it. Innovative alternatives like this will help those who struggle the most and increase individuals access to justice on a local level.
While it is best to limit invasive interactions between law enforcement and your constituents, there are some cases in which an interaction is unavoidable.
One Common Approach: Overcriminalization
Unnecessary and problematic interactions often arise as a result of criminalizing benign activities. We saw this happen several years ago when a widowed 70-year-old grandmother couldn’t afford to pay for the water required to keep her lawn green.
When a police officer showed up to write her a ticket for the dead lawn, she refused to provide her name and fully comply. The woman was arrested and taken to jail. Later, the charges were dropped and the woman was released.
When dealing with things like aesthetic practice or personal preferences, it’s best to have as little law enforcement involvement as possible. The best way to do that is to ultimately have as little government involvement as possible, so that law enforcement officers are not troubled with, nor troubling residents with, minor issues best handled outside of the force of law.
A Better Way: Foster Good Relationships
If an activity is not causing anyone harm, perhaps reconsider any heavy-handed enforcement on the matter or even reform the regulations. In general, work to cultivate a positive working relationship between citizens and law enforcement personnel.
Before Lehi Police Chief Chad Smith retired in 2014, Lehi patrol cars were decorated with the motto “fostering public trust.”
More importantly though, the police department at the time worked hard to reflect that mission in their work. You should foster public trust and position law enforcement efforts to build and protect the community.
Law enforcement personnel are faced with difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations.
This creates high-pressure situations where, often, it seems the only way to respond is with force.
Remember, this is the force of the government and should be reserved for rare situations.
One Common Approach: Unnecessary Escalation of Force
Police officers support communities and avoid further escalating potentially harmful situations. However, in many cases, this has proven difficult, and the results can be fatal.
In the summer of 2020, protests broke out across the United States. Protesters focused on issues related to police brutality raised by the death of George Floyd. In many cases, these protests included actual destruction of property. Where that was the case, it made sense that police officers stepped in to intervene.
In some cases, however, protesters peacefully sought reform regarding law enforcement’s use of force and were met with the same outrageous force they hoped to prevent. When officers respond with force to those who were peaceful prior to their arrival, they escalate the situation.
Too often, police are quick to use unreasonable force in situations that do not call for such actions or could be resolved in a more constructive way. This not only has the potential to spark nationwide outrage, it can also cause injury and even death for both officers and civilians.
Law enforcement officers have been tasked with protecting our communities. You should help equip them with the tools and perspectives necessary to do this without using unnecessary force.
A Better Way: Nurture a Culture of De-Escalation
Instead of meeting all situations with force, law enforcement personnel should be trained in more extensive and constructive strategies. They should be prepared to de-escalate situations and handle mental illness.
This is certainly not easy. But do your part to work towards a more just, effective, and positive law enforcement process.
You can be a leader on this issue by working with the police department to review what de-escalation practices are used, how they compare to other agencies, and what training is required of officers to ensure that an excessive use of force by officers does not happen in your community.
Doing the work on the front end will help ensure no problematic outcomes occur on the backend.
Your law enforcement effort should be specific and precise, it should mitigate harm without restricting freedoms. Using law enforcement to make money or to prove a point is inappropriate.
For many people, interactions with law enforcement will be their only interaction with local government. We hope that none of your policies will make people feel bullied or singled out.
As you pursue the goal of keeping the peace in your community, keep these key takeaways in mind:
- Law enforcement efforts should be narrowly tailored to keep the peace.
- Law enforcement should not function as a source of revenue generation.
- Eliminate unnecessary interactions between individuals and enforcement personnel.
- Law enforcement efforts that are too proactive and predictive can constitute a threat to justice.