Zero tolerance makes zero sense

Zero Tolerance
When we lose our ability to make qualitative decisions, we lose much of what it means to be alive.

Have we lost all ability to make reasonable judgements?  Is the fear of being unfair so great that we are willing to subject ourselves to draconian rules to avoid making subjective decisions?  Apparently so.

In Easton, MD two high school lacrosse players have been arrested for possession of weapons on school grounds. The weapons were found in the boys’ equipment bags during a search of the team bus prior to a game.  One kid had a Leatherman tool.  The other a Bic lighter, which was classified as an explosive device.  Both are tools reasonably used to repair lacrosse sticks.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.  In Portland, ME a freshman girl was expelled for asking a friend for some Tylenol. In New York, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout was suspended from school for a month for bringing an antique two-inch penknife to school. The knife was found after school officials searched his car in the school parking lot and found the knife in a survival kit the honor student kept in the locked trunk of his car.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”  Why can’t a similar test be used with regard to weapons and drugs in schools?  There is an understandable desire to keep weapons and drugs out of schools.  But what constitutes a weapon or a drug has a large gray area.

You can get drunk on mouthwash, yet a small travel bottle or spritzer for getting the lunchtime pizza off your breath before locking lips with your boyfriend after class is probably not an indication of someone with a budding drinking problem.  Yet, finding quarts of Scope stashed in your locker might be such an indication.

Similarly, pocket knives are incredibly useful tools for all manner of small tasks.  Could you kill someone with one?  Sure.  You could also kill them with a rock, your hands, or gravity. And we haven’t seen a move to outlaw gravity. (Although given the way evolution is treated in most schools, gravity shouldn’t get too cocky.)

We talk about truth, justice, and the American way, but there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute.  Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.  When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?  And what are we teaching our children by raising them in this environment?  That laws are capricious, unyielding, and without mercy?  That common sense has no place in society?  That being good means following the rules to the letter of the law and never stepping outside the lines?

These are not lessons I want my children to learn.  I make my living designing machines capable of only black and white reasoning. Yet, the world is mostly shades of gray. I do not want my children programmed.  When we lose our ability to make qualitative decisions, we lose much of what it means to be alive.

The Shame of Rochester’s Red Light District

Red light camera (by Derek Jensen)

It’s been 6 months now since Rochester, NY deployed its new red light camera system in an effort to keep us safe.  That is, if you are using the word safe in the same way that you might use the word “fruit” to describe a Pop-Tart.

As I’ve written previously, these systems are not remotely about safety.  That’s just the marketing spin.  In most cases, safety actually declines.  These systems are about generating revenue.

Rochester just revealed its statistics on the first half-year of operation, so let’s see how it’s going.  Police have issued 5,158 automated tickets for running red lights.  That’s a fair number of violators.  I wonder how the accident rates at those intersections compared with previous years?  Apparently, so does the city.  Executive Deputy Police Chief George Markert said,  “It will take some period of time to determine that.”

How can that possibly be?  If you install a system with the expressed purpose of increasing safety, don’t you plan to measure that expected result?  This is not advanced math.  There are doubtless statistics for historical accident rates at these intersections.  Compare those to the rates for the same period this past year.  Is A < B?  Perhaps I’m just cynical. but I’m pretty sure we’ll never see that data.

Okay, so what about the revenue part?  Are we at least raking in cash to the city coffers?  It turns out, not so much.  While the city has collected $141,045 in fines so far, that’s only half the amount that’s outstanding because over 50% of the tickets remain unpaid.  Nearly 1 in 4 tickets are in default or in collections, meaning the chances of ever getting paid are slim.

But hey, $141k isn’t pocket change.  That’s a good profit, right?  It turns out, not so much.  You see, the cameras were installed and are maintained by Arizona-based vendor Redflex Traffic Systems.  Over the same period, they have billed the city $145,164 for operating the system.  Fortunately, there is a clause in the city’s contract with Redflex saying they can’t be billed more than they take in.  So, all totaled, the city has seen a net cash influx of… let me work the arithmetic out here… carry the 1… ah, yes… $0.

On the other hand, they have managed to relocate $141k of money from Rochester to Arizona.  Even if all of the tickets had been paid in full, while they would be sitting on $140k profit, they still would be sending 50% of the money they raise to Arizona.  Doesn’t it seem there should be some tax or fee that could be enacted to raise a similar amount of money from area residents without requiring us to pay double that amount in order to subsidize business in another state?

In summary, it does appear my earlier assessment was wrong.  This venture isn’t about revenue for the city, it’s about profits for Redflex.   And it’s still not remotely about safety.  The city’s complicity in this program doesn’t make them opportunistic or greedy.  It makes them chumps.  There… feel better?