Thursday, June 25, 2009

Loitering laws lack luster

Once upon a time a person could decide to simply stand around without immediately falling under suspicion of shenanigans. Then along came anti-loitering ordinances to break up the stillness party. Under the guise of "helping to prevent crime," loitering laws gave police permission to stop and question anyone for the simple act of hanging out.

Now, sure, some folks who choose not to walk or run through neighborhoods at all times are up to no good. But so are some of those walkers and runners. And people in cars! Don't forget about them. Lots of criminals in cars. So why not institute a rule where anyone driving can be pulled over and questioned at any time simply for driving?

While the latter proposal (rightfully) usually goes over like a lead brick, loitering ordinances are a favorite choice of embattled and/or nervous police and local politicians. Take District 9 Alder Paul Skidmore (please! hey-o), who is currently trying to line up support for an anti-loitering law. Madison had one on the books until it expired in 2002, and now Skidmore would like to bring it back.

Only, selectively.

You see, some neighborhoods are populated entirely with God-fearing, law abiding stander arounders, while others are full of idle no-goodniks. So, clearly, application of a loitering ordinance should be a matter of picking and choosing.

Never mind that such a policy would, more than likely, lead to disproportionate hassling of minorities and young people (because that's just how it goes) in less affluent neighborhoods.

There are other, less discriminatory ways to clean up areas with high crime. Greater communication between police and citizens, faster response times to calls for help, more beat cops, better community services (like after school and childcare programs), and other such measures can all help to lower crime rates without needlessly disenfranchising people along the way.

And hey, WISCTV? What's up with the photo you ran with this article? Not only are the people in it all black (and wearing baggy clothes! Heaven forfend!), but they're walking. Isn't the piece supposed to be about loitering? Just sayin'.

(photo by The Life of Bryan on Flickr)


Briane P said...

Bravo -- Way back when I was a young lawyer, I challenged the Madison ordinance on loitering. The case was dropped short of a determination by then-municipal, now-county, Judge Gaylord, but I think we'd have won.

Emily said...

Interesting. Do you mind if I ask what the argument was? No specifics, of course, just how you were going to challenge the law?

The Lost Albatross