Last week, Austin City Council passed two “Freedom City” resolutions. The Austin-American Statesman reports that the first resolution “calls on City Manager Spencer Cronk to work with Austin police to end most discretionary arrests, which happen when an officer chooses to arrest someone for an offense that could result in either a trip to jail or a ticket. The resolution also calls on city leaders to track when, where and why discretionary arrests are made.”
Liberal Councilman Greg Casar noted that blacks are twice as likely to be arrested at a police officer’s discretion than whites or Hispanics and, further, seven times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana offenses.
This situation certainly raises red flags. We are confronted with an apparent conflict of two of the most important principles of the American social contract; 1) the rule of law, and 2) equality before the law.
The disproportionate number of arrests of black people certainly creates the appearance of a violation of the principle of equality before the law but the arbitrary reduction or elimination of discretionary arrests could undermine the rule of law. Reduced police patrolling as a result of protests against police shootings of black men has led to an increase in crime in many black neighborhoods.
So we are faced with a quandary. It is the penchant of progressives to mandate an equality of outcomes. In the case of Austin this is accomplished by reducing or eliminating the annoying statistic by not enforcing the law. But this reaction does nothing to resolve the underlying problem that was the cause of the unequal outcome.
Most of the progressives on the Austin City Council (and there are a lot of them) assume that the underlying cause is racism. And that may, indeed, be the case. But we don’t know that this is the case. But applying a solution that does not address the underlying cause may not only exacerbate the problem but may also create a new injustice (in this instance, of creating a less safe community for all citizens).
As noted above, the city council also wants the police to better track the incidences of discretionary arrests. This would be great if the result would be a better understanding of such arrests, but the most likely outcome will be that, knowing that each discretionary arrest will result in a probe of the police officers action (and the additional paper work this entails), police officers will refrain from such arrests entirely.
The head of the Austin Police Association said that the Freedom City proponents used misleading data (misleading statistics OMG!!!!) to garner support for the resolution and stated, “We do arrest more blacks and Hispanics but the problem we have is that people do not want to look at the reasons why.” That’s because if we knew the real reason for the disparity we would discover the highly politicized Freedom City resolutions were misguided and wrong-headed.
Any action can have unintended consequences which, being unintended, are usually undesirable. But any action taken to resolve a problem without taking into consideration the underlying causes of the problem are much more likely to have undesirable unintended consequences. So by investigating police behavior we have changed police behavior and made the city less safe.
The progressive members of the Austin City Council did not want to hear about the causes of the disparity in the number of arrests of minorities, because the truth might have endangered their political agenda. This is a local issue here in Texas but it has wider applications. Political solutions to real problems rarely work. That is why poverty levels in the United States about the same as when President Johnson began the War on Poverty over fifty years ago.
It is hard work to stamp out injustice. These two facile, feel-good (at least for progressives) resolutions from the Austin City council are unlikely to advance the cause of justice. Instead they undermine the principles of the social contract that binds citizens together.