It comes with the job: pulling out the metal wrist-wear no one likes to wear. It’s a process often glamorized by Hollywood. A tireless and clever detective or group of detectives have put the pieces together and nabbed a dangerous criminal. Normally the cinematic climax is when a detective dramatically utters some version of the phrase “cuff ‘em and get ‘em outta here.” An expressionless uniformed officer, generally a patrol officer, places the handcuffed criminal into the back seat of the patrol vehicle for transport. Justice has been served.
Most arrests, however, are not that dramatic. More times than not, the handcuffs come out not for high-profile, dangerous offenders, but for minor, nonviolent ones.
Consider a routine example. A patrol officer in one of Mobile’s western precincts (the 2nd or 4th, which both got more than 50,000 calls for service last year) gets dispatched to a call in the farthest part of their precinct in West Mobile. It’s pertaining to the “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.” The officer arrives, and it is determined such a criminal offense has indeed been committed.
It’s a misdemeanor, nonviolent offense, for which the offender’s punishment, if convicted, will probably not include any jail time. Nevertheless, the offense necessitates a custodial arrest. The handcuffs must come out.
The officer places the arrested individual in the back seat of the patrol vehicle, completes the paperwork and notifies the MPD dispatcher that she or he is enroute downtown to Metro Jail with one in custody. The officer is now out of service (can no longer respond to calls or patrol his or her beat) and begins the journey from the edge of West Mobile to Metro Jail.
However, they don’t go straight to Metro Jail. First, they have to stop at the magistrate’s to initiate and complete more paperwork. Afterward, they are able to proceed to Metro Jail.
Once the arrested individual is cleared through Metro Jail’s intake unit, the officer can leave and place themselves “10-8,” or back in service.
If it sounds like a lot, it is, and depending on where in Mobile an officer is coming from, along with the time of day and traffic, not to mention any paperwork complications, this whole process can take a patrol officer off the street for a considerable length of time. Again, not for a dangerous offender, not for someone who is a threat to the community or themselves, but for an individual and an offense that will carry some type of punishment (a fine, community service, probation) but generally no jail time.
This scenario plays out day after day for Mobile’s patrol officers. Is this an effective use of the city’s resources? Even more important, is this enhancing the safety of Mobile’s citizens? The reasonable response would be no.
Following the lead of other areas, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and his top public safety officials put forth the UNTCC (Uniform Non Traffic Citation and Complaint) ordinance. UNTCC is a fancy acronym for a ticket, and this ordinance would give patrol officers in Mobile the latitude to issue a ticket for certain categories of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses in lieu of arresting an offender and going through the process outlined above.
The punishment or penalty for committing one of these crimes isn’t removed, just the empowerment of the officer to not have to make an arrest and be tangled up in the administrative and logistical process that comes with a custodial arrest.
The National Conference of State Legislatures noted this about the subject: “A citation in lieu of arrest is permitted in most states for certain low-level crimes. … Citations establish the recipient as a suspect in a criminal matter, and like a full custody arrest it involves charging someone with a crime. … The use of citations can contribute to lower jail populations and local cost savings by diverting from detention arrestees who pose little risk to public safety.”
POLICE Magazine noted in an April 2016 article: “While calls to increase citation use may seem like a change in practices, research found that 87 percent of law enforcement agencies use citation, with almost 81 percent of those agencies using the practice for 10 or more years. This data is significant in showing that the law enforcement profession has long supported alternatives to arrest.”
What the mayor and local public safety officials are calling for is nothing new. Nor is it being soft on crime. The UNTCC ordinance DOES NOT eliminate the criminal penalties for or remove the legal restriction against the misdemeanor offenses covered — which is what decriminalization would do. This is why it’s so unfortunate some media outlets hyped this as a “decriminalization” effort. If that were the case, no citation would be issued at all!
Whether it’s our City Council or the community at large, hopefully wiser, more prudent and perceptive heads will prevail on this very important issue. It shouldn’t be an issue that sparks any kind of metaphorical fireworks. It’s good public policy.
It’s good policy because, regardless of the offense, the ordinance would cover — unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, misdemeanor possession of marijuana, minor in possession, etc. — a citation being issued and a later conviction in court will still result in an offender having a criminal record for that offense. The offender will have to deal with the consequences of that criminal record and any punishment given by the court. Violating any of the ordinance’s misdemeanor offenses will still carry the same cost.
The only difference is that we would be placing greater trust in our police officers and their discretion and judgment in how best to handle these routine minor offenses. That’s not being soft, that’s just being smart.