Allocating Scarce Law Enforcement Resources

On Sunday we drove back to Columbus from Cedar Point.  It was the heart of the Labor Day weekend, traffic was heavy, and the Ohio Highway Patrol was out in force.  We saw more than a dozen OHP cars as we made our way south.  In many instances, the officers were standing outside their cars, aiming their radar guns at oncoming traffic, identifying speeders with a stern finger point, and waving them over to the berm for a ticket.  It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

m-cars-dodge-chargerAs I passed OHP patrol car after patrol car, I found myself wondering:  is this really a good use of our scarce law enforcement dollars?

In America, we’ve got serious crime problems in many of our cities.  The murder rates in places like Chicago are shocking.  Gang violence seems to be on the rise.  In southern Ohio, a heroin epidemic is raging, and overdoses recently spiked as a deadly new form of heroin apparently mixed with an animal tranquilizer hit the streets.

By contrast, the stretch of I-71 between Ashland and the outskirts of Columbus isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime.  There’s speeding, sure . . . but in the grand scheme of things speeding on an interstate highway is a pretty mild offense.  Do we really need to have dozens of well trained, well equipped police officers patrolling a highway and ticketing speeders, or would it be better to have those law enforcement personnel employed to hunt down deadly drug dealers, break up violent gangs, and protect society against murderers?

I’m not saying that American highways should be turned into lawless zones, and we clearly need some form of highway patrol to help stranded motorists, deal with accidents, and catch drunk drivers, reckless lunatics, and road ragers.  But none of the people I saw get ticketed on Sunday fell into that category.  They were just average folks who were moving with the flow of traffic in the passing lane at speeds slightly above the posted limit, and now they’ll find their wallets a few hundred bucks lighter.

Some people contend that modern traffic law enforcement is all about generating those speeding fines and putting the resulting funds into governmental coffers.  I suppose defenders of aggressive traffic speeding enforcement would argue that rules are rules, and a show of force like we saw on Sunday is going to convey the unmistakable message that cops are watching and people need to obey the law.  As somebody who thinks that “broken windows” theory makes sense as a matter of human nature, I can see that . . . but I also think that a more rational allocation of resources should be made.  If you assume that we have a finite amount of law enforcement dollars — and we clearly do — I’d rather see it used to address more egregious and deadly criminal conduct.