The Arizona Desert Lamp

The Ex Post Facto Tag, and other fun changes.

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 10 August 2009

One might think that, in response to complaints of civil liberties violations and unduly targetted policing, the TPD would be inclined to scale back its operation. To the contrary, according to the Ward 3 Newsletter [PDF]:

To date, the following changes have been made to the current Red Tag Ordinance:

Anonymous calls made to 911 reporting and unruly gathering will no longer have a lower priority. Another change is the “day after” Red Tag. Response time is often affected when TPD Officers are responding to higher priority issues throughout the City. The “day after” ruling applies when garbage/litter is identified on the property initially reported as a loud party. In addition, Landlords will be held more accountable for problems associated with their property. Immediate notification is initiated, followed by a letter from TPD in the event of future prosecution. Copies of all Red Tag Reports are now forwarded to Ward III for tracking purposes. Other areas currently under research include code amendments, and building student-neighbor connections.

These changes were reported in October 2008 – apologies for missing the story (which we’ll blame on the untimely expiration of our W3N subscription). Nevertheless, these changes are important enough to merit further breaking down.

1. Higher prioritization of “unruly gatherings.” To get a sense of what TPD is up against, here is a chart of the total calls for service that the department has received since 1986 (source):

TPD Calls

In 2006, the Tucson Citizen wrote a story about the increasing burden on the TPD, which included the follow tidbit:

Often, dozens of low-priority cases await attention while police are repeatedly diverted by higher priority calls. With more than 400,000 calls a year, there are few breaks.

“You stick a Band-Aid on it and move on to the next one,” Payette said recently while driving to Tucson Medical Center to take two calls, a drug overdose and a reported sexual assault.

. . .

“We have to triage our services so we are available to deal with those life-and-death emergencies,” police Chief Richard Miranda said. “Where in the past the life-and-death emergency was the exception – maybe it happened once or twice a night – now it’s happening once or twice an hour.”

Each day, Tucson police take more than 1,000 calls, about two-thirds of them low-priority calls such as identity theft, burglary and car theft. On Oct. 20, dispatchers took 989 calls to 911, or about one every 90 seconds.

In the TPD’s eyes, citing an “unruly gathering” – i.e. five or more people conversing freely in a single location – now has a higher priority than burglary, car theft, and identity theft. It’s unclear where reports of marijuana use or underage drinking (sans other activity) fit in this hierarchy. When one wonders why Tucson seems so unsafe, there are worse places to start. Props go out to the TPD for reducing violent crime over the past few years – but this is a trend that should be continued, rather than diverted.

2. “Day-after red tags.” Officers issuing red tags already operate with a wide scope, but this expands it even further. The presence of litter, while perhaps correlated with noise, is by no means definitive evidence of unruly events the night prior. Whereas the former standard required actual evidence of unruliness, this new standard turns a report of noise into noise itself, so far as there is litter present – never mind how old, nor how much, there is. Given the low standards that red-tags have previously shown, it’s conceivable that police, receiving a noise complaint, could return the next day to the cited residence, and award a red-tag on the basis of a single beer bottle on the front stoop. The red-tag program is already fraught with due process issues, but this provision makes it even worse.

Looks like there's some academic violations afoot

Looks like there's some academic violations afoot.

3. Neighborhood Tracking. Generally, this should be a neighborhood-based problem, and by itself is not a bad thing. Yet the case of Rhode Island illustrates where this ends up:

Spatcher, the URI student, received a sticker after a January 2008 house party that drew the police following a fistfight outside.

David Keach, a fellow URI student who moved into the house later that year, said he believes the sticker put the property on the police department’s radar, encouraging officers to find additional infractions. Months later, the tenants were each fined $300 after another house party, though that penalty is being appealed.

. . .

“Although a ‘Nuisance House List’ with specific addresses has been maintained, no photographs, names or addresses are circulated to other neighbors,” DeSisto wrote.

If the Third Ward kept red-tag data to themselves, there would be no problem; but it would be rather surprising if weren’t used to single out “trouble houses,” as the Narragansett police have done. In the Rhode Island case, the dubious sins of the past residents were visited on future residents. For students this is bad, but for renters it is even worse: such singling out amounts to systematic devaluation of the property.

In light of all these provisions, it’s worth appreciating the irony of the last statement, calling for a strengthening of “student-neighbor relations.” Many Tucson residents seem to think that the best way to encourage such relations is by instituting a bevy of regulations designed to discipline and punish them. Rather than going out to students’ houses to ask them to turn it down, they find it easier to just call in the police – after all, who really wants to get out of bed for those damn kids?

Image courtesy of Flickr user mrkumm

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