San Diego Police Think They Can Prevent Future Crimes By Bothering People At Trolley Stops

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

A thorough investigation launched by the Voice of San Diego discovered a police operation that purported to curb serious crimes in the future by identifying and questioning people who did not pay a trolley fare. Experts tell ThinkProgress that the program is unlikely to achieve its goals, and that it ignores more effective ways to prevent crime.

The basic premise of the operation, dubbed Operation Lemon Drop, was to identify and penalize people who could commit a crime in the future, by patrolling areas where low-level offenders converged. During the four-month operation, more than 30 officers from the sheriff’s department boarded a trolley at the Lemon Grove station and asked people if they paid the $2.50 riders fare. Anyone who did not pay or gave officers probable cause to approach them — such as listening to loud music — was pulled aside and questioned. Of the 16,631 people who police confronted, 451 received citations. Only 1.1 percent of the people questioned, or 186 individuals, were arrested for felonies or misdemeanor charges.

Officers specifically targeted the trolley station based on data that tracked criminal histories, gang affiliations, and police records. If someone was previously incarcerated and met any of the officers’ criteria, they were considered a prolific offender. Lemon Grove, a public transportation stop, was identified as a location with a high concentration of prolific offenders and their associates.

The department conducted Lemon Drop as a result of Assembly Bill 109, a 2011 realignment law that moved low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. The law also authorized county-level supervision of “non-violent” and “non-serious” offenders, as well as sex offenders, who were released from prison. Therefore, jurisdictions like the one in San Diego are charged with devising and implementing strategies to tackle crime. As far as realignment policies go, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project sees merit in shifting responsibility to local officials. Extending supervisory roles to counties can be beneficial for inmates, since they are typically located closer to family members and lawyers. Serving time in a local prison also provides easier access to potential employers.

Contrary to the goal of the operation, however, many contend that the tactics used in this operation actually have adverse consequences for targeted communities. The Campbell Corporation concluded that so-called “scared straight” operations that involved taking at-risk youth to prisons “are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths.” The same logic can ostensibly be applied to policing former offenders.

Studies show that the most effective way to curb future crime is to invest in comprehensive rehabilitation programs — not heavy policing. A 2014 report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that recidivism declined after realignment when re-entry services were emphasized, as opposed to heavier enforcement. Indeed, another report by the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies concluded that cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses individuals’ underlying motivations to commit crime, is particularly effective. By identifying the reasons behind criminal activity, stressing accountability, and emphasizing new ways of thinking, the likelihood of a person engaging in criminal behavior again is reduced.

According to Robert Weisberg, a law professor and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, the type of hotspot policing embraced by the San Diego officers was popularized in the 1990s. At the time, computer technology used to identify potential violent offenders. coupled with proper funding, led to a significant decrease in crime. But, he argues, “the San Diego effort bares a very weak resemblance to that time.” That is due, in large part, to a gross lack of resources and funding to accommodate county officers’ expanded roles in the criminal justice system.

Lemon Drop is also a classic form of net-widening, whereby police engage in more supervisory policing of serious criminals. “If you want to widen the net on the people you’re really aiming at, by lowering the level offense conduct that is sufficient to make an arrest, of course you’ll be catching people you weren’t worried about in the first place,” said Weisberg.

But supervisory operations like Lemon Drop also raise issues of racial profiling, says Mauer. “Making people pay the fare is harmless, but the operation becomes problematic if it results in searches of people that mirror the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk style of policing. We don’t routinely ask business men if they put money in the parking meter,” he told ThinkProgress.

As for whether or not Lemon Drop strengthens or undermines California’s efforts to reform its justice system, Weisberg believes the operation is emblematic of chaos surrounding the state’s prison transition.

“The problems in California criminal justice are deep and complex and structural. I describe this more as a kind of symptom of the very dysfunctional system in California. It’s not the worst thing that’s happening. It’s not a solution to the bad things that are happening, it’s just one of many reactions by officials to a very troubled criminal justice situation. I don’t see this as some kind of well-designed new policy that will improve California criminal justice.”