It's hard for people to think rationally about crime. If five children die in a tornado, it's barely a headline, but if those same five kids die at the hand of a serial killer, it's a nationwide crisis, and mothers start attaching tracking devices to their daughters. When death comes at the hands of a fellow human being, the panic and rage get cranked up to 10.
So it's hard to talk people out of laws that sound like they're tough on crime, because damn it, those criminals have to pay, and the people arguing on the other side are probably just a bunch of bleeding hearts anyway. Who cares if the statistics say ...
If you're a product of the American public school system or you just travel a lot, you've probably faced at least one situation featuring a law enforcement official with a drug dog, sniffing around your belongings to see if you're holding. Maybe you've taken a look at the happy pooch sniffing about and remembered that holy shit you have a half eaten Slim Jim in your backpack and braced yourself for the inevitable cavity search.
But the dog didn't bat an eyelid at the scent of your meat snack. See, dog noses are goddamn incredible. If it's drugs they search for, then that's the only thing they'll react to. That's why many districts spend as much as $36,000 per year to have K-9 units sweep their schools. Which is a shame, really, considering that drug dogs are accurate less than half the time.
"Just hand over the jerky and I'll pin it on the fat kid, alright?"
And we don't mean that the dogs miss a lot of drugs. They don't. We mean they result in a lot of innocent people getting searched. About 56 percent of the time, when the dog says, "Search this dude's cavities and trash his car, that man is as evil as a vacuum cleaner!" the person has done nothing wrong. What's more, they appear to be racially biased: If the person being sniffed is Latino, the success rate drops to 27 percent. The other 73 percent of the time, they're getting thoroughly and embarrassingly searched for doing nothing at all, just because a dog said so.
West Midlands Police
And yet dogs always insist they're colorblind.
Of course, it's not the dog that's racist, not really. However, its handlers might be another matter. And they may have no idea that they're influencing the dog.
To understand how that could work, it all goes back to a 20th century horse called Clever Hans that could perform arithmetic. Clever Hans was a huge hit until scientists eventually revealed that the horse was just picking up cues from his handlers and, shockingly, had no real understanding of mathematics. Many decades later, Dr. Lisa Lit at UC Davis bumped into the story and started wondering whether the concept was applicable to bomb and drug dogs.
And, if she's anything like us, spent a good half hour giggling over the concept of drug horses.
So Lit set up a room complex where the dogs would be presented with multiple scents of interest (read: sausages everywhere), but no actual drugs or explosives. However, the handlers were told that they were looking for the real thing, and also that the areas with conflicting scents were marked in a certain way. The results were condemning: Only 21 out of 144 searches accurately reported nothing of interest. There were a total of 225 alerts from the dogs, each one of them a false alarm. In areas with the fake marking that the trainers were told about (and were therefore extra wary of), the dogs were twice as likely to give a false positive.
"I'm pretty sure these guys are innocent, but whatever, you're the dude with kibble."
Yes, even with all their nasal superpowers, at the end of the day, dogs are hierarchical creatures. They tend to love and respect the shit out of their handlers, and if the handler gets anxious, the dog notices it and reacts accordingly. So if the handler thinks that the guy in the van looks like one of those Mexican dope smugglers, well ...
Few things are more inherently dramatic than a good old-fashioned car chase. Hairpin turns, bemulleted maverick cops firing out the window at a vanload of bad guys, ramping off conveniently placed flatbeds, smashing through fruit stands, pedestrians jumping out of the way at the last minute ... we all know the drill, and we all love the drill.
It all makes for one hell of a spectacle in the movies. And the best thing is, in real life they can be even crazier.
"Stop! You're under arrest for illegal window tinting!"
Which, incidentally, brings us back to the subject of those pedestrians.
If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can be trusted, real pedestrians are far less dexterous than their movie counterparts. In fact, at least a third of all fatalities in high speed chases tend to be innocent bystanders, just going about their day. We're talking over 360 people per year, just flat out run over by cops and robbers who watch way too many movies. Well, that's the official record, anyway. Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police chases, believes the actual number may be three to four times higher.
Your water yoga skills don't translate to car-dodging bullet time.
See, you're only counted as a pursuit-related fatality if you die during the chase. If the suspect's pickup skidded on your balls and you opt to get in a couple of hours' tasteful whimpering before buying the farm, you're not making it into the official statistics.
But it's all the criminals' fault, right? What are the cops supposed to do, let a serial killer get away just because chasing him might kill some random dude on the sidewalk?
"Suspect moving south on Primrose. All units, do not pretend to be Bullitt."
Well, see, that's the thing. Billy Truckonyournuts there probably wasn't even all that dangerous until the cops tried to stop him -- a good portion of the criminals engaging in car chases are guilty of nothing more serious than property crime or, we kid you not, unpaid parking tickets.
The officials have started recognizing the problem, which is why cities like Milwaukee have changed their police guidelines to only allow chases if the suspect is wanted for a violent crime. So far, it seems to be working -- chase-related injuries have been more than halved, and the number of pursuits resulting in crashes dropped from 25 to 12 over a six-month period. Wait, they used to average one violent car chase a week in Milwaukee? What the hell is going on there?
Whatever your stance on narcotics might be, you probably agree that they're not for children. So even if you lived in a libertarian utopia where drugs could be sold on every corner, there would still be places you'd want to see them banned -- schools, libraries, playgrounds, etc. Nobody wants to see 9-year-olds winning black tar heroin at Chuck E. Cheese's.
If you stare into the abyss for too long, the mouse will stare back.
Lawmakers agreed with this, of course, and implemented laws imposing harsh additional penalties for anyone caught selling drugs near schools and other places frequented by kids. If you can't stop them from selling drugs completely, you can at least encourage them to do it far away from the little ones. Makes sense. In theory, anyway.
The problem is that in order to differentiate a "drugs BAD" area from the surrounding "drugs kinda not OK, we guess" areas, someone needs to set actual borders of the drug-free zone. The particular border distance the authorities picked was 1,000 feet from the premises, which sounds pretty reasonable on paper ... until you think about just how many schools and other kid-frequented zones there are in any urban area. Each of those is itself a "don't sell drugs here" zone, plus a ring of about three city blocks in every direction. At which point you will probably find yourself on the border of another drug-free zone. When you map out all of the intersecting circles, basically every city is one giant, pulsating mass of overlapping drug-free zones.
Leaving drug dealers very few options.
Which, of course, completely defeats the purpose. The dealers couldn't abide by the zoning rules even if they wanted to, because the zones are freaking everywhere. Researchers in New Jersey have concluded that only 9 percent of drug deals are committed outside a school zone's drug-free limits. In Massachusetts, 80 percent of drug deals happen within a zone. Not because the dealers are all selling to kids, but because the zones are unavoidable (only 1 percent of those sales involved a minor). So they're right back where they were before: The penalty for selling right on the baseball diamond is the same as selling anywhere else, so what does it matter?
In the eyes of the law, this is identical to that needle-strewn alley behind your local Safeway.
Yet, if you go to voters and suggest shrinking the drug-free zone to make them work as a deterrent again, you know exactly what you're going to hear in response: "What, you want the drug dealers to be allowed to sell closer to our children? Why don't you just personally inject every baby with crack?"
"Studies are showing that 90 percent of babies have chronic confidence issues."