The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

t'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 what the statistics say.
The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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 ...

Drug Dogs Are Inaccurate ... and Racist

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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.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

"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 ...

Car Chases Are More Dangerous Than Criminals

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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?

Drug-Free Zones Keep Dealers Close to Schools

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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?

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

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?"

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

"Studies are showing that 90 percent of babies have chronic confidence issues."

Red Light Cameras Are Killing People

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

Nobody likes a red light camera when they get a ticket in the mail, but most people admit that the apparatus does serve a function in the grand scheme of things. After all, a lot of people take a "If a cop didn't see it, I didn't do it" approach to obeying traffic laws, so it helps to have the unblinking eye of the law standing guard at busy intersections to make sure people slow down and pay attention.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

A lidless eye, wreathed in flame.

The cameras are effective as hell, too: The city of Los Angeles maintains that red light cameras have reduced accidents by 34 per-freaking-cent.

Reporter David Goldstein of CBS, however, thought that this claim carried the fragrant whiff of bullshit. He started asking around for the LAPD's data on the subject, only to be promptly stonewalled and charged $500 for the info.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

"Meet us in the alley behind Chick-fil-A and bring your silly hat."

Goldstein coughed up the dough and found that the cops had a good reason for their uncooperativeness. The data differed slightly from the "Holy shit, like a third less accidents everywhere!" stance the city officially maintained -- in fact, accidents were actually up at 20 of the 32 intersections studied.

Turns out the LAPD's numbers only counted a reduction in crashes that were caused by people running red lights and getting side-reamed. They completely ignored the fresh epidemic of rear-end collisions caused by people slamming on their breaks to avoid a camera-issued ticket.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

Totes worth it.

Studies of red light cameras in Melbourne, Australia and Virginia came up with similar findings. The Aussies concluded that red light cameras had "no demonstrated value," and the Virginia Transportation Research Council tied a 27 percent rise in accidents to the cameras. But the largest nail in the coffin comes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. They compared traffic fatalities in cities with and without red light camera (RLC) programs:

"... cities using RLCs had an estimated higher rate of red light running fatalities, specifically 25 percent, than cities that did not use RLCs in the period 'after' cameras were used."


The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)
Chris Phan

The Machine Uprising has officially begun.

This 25 percent increase in perished commuters is, naturally, completely unrelated to the $1 million in red light camera fines that even a small city can rack up annually. Equally coincidental is the fact that, like we've pointed out before, some cities have been caught decreasing the time of their yellow lights before installing red light cameras.

We guess it all makes sense, if you're a really hardened bureaucrat -- after all, a citizen could die in a crash any day, so the local government might as well liberate him from his excess cash while they still can.

"Dry County" Laws Increase Drunk Driving

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

In the USA, Prohibition ended at the federal level in 1933, but there is nothing stopping individual counties from passing anti-alcohol ordinances. For the people who aren't really down with the whole liquor scene, these alcohol-free dry counties are a little slice of heaven. That is, if they can make it across the street without getting mowed down by rampant drunks.

Take Texas. The state currently has 22 dry counties, which you'd expect to have some of the lowest rates of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the state, what with there being no alcohol available.


"I guess I'm a little like Jesus in that respect."

Instead, data indicates that these counties have more than three times the rate of fatalities as counties where booze is readily available.

The explanation is simple, when you really think about it. Dry county or not, there are always people who just can't answer no to the question: "Would you like to get wasted?" And if they can't get the sweet stuff from their home county, they'll damn well get it from the neighboring one. People in dry counties don't drink less per se -- they just drive farther to get drunk. And then they drive back home, completely sauced, muttering under their breath about stupid laws and stupid sober people upholding stupid dry counties. In that state of mind, it's easy to forget the concept of braking and, for that matter, steering.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

"Shit, that baby stroller must be going like 90."

It's not just Texans, either. Journalists who studied 15 years of records in Kentucky found that their dry counties had far more DUI-related crashes than the "wet" ones. Arkansas, same story.

But hey, at least parents in those dry counties don't have to worry about their children drinking, right? Yeah, about that ... Turns out drug dealers don't have dry counties, and they're just happy that their product doesn't have to compete with alcohol. So, drug-related deaths and crime go up when alcohol is harder to get. It's almost like, we don't know, maybe kids are going to party regardless of what your stupid laws say.


"I could walk in a straight line, or I could do all the moves to 'Thriller.' Take your time."

Capital Punishment Does Nothing to Reduce Violent Crime

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

First things first: We're not taking a stance here. When you're arguing about any kind of punishment, you're doing it from two sides: what actually works, and what is morally right. For instance, even if all of the data somehow showed that the best way to lower the rate of sexual assault is to give every rapist a shiny new car and a vacation to Barbados (it doesn't!), most of us would still oppose it. Even if it works, it's just wrong.

So if you're in favor of the death penalty, it's for two reasons: A) because justice says that killers deserve nothing less than death and B) because it will scare future killers away from killing anybody else, and lower the murder rate.


Studies show that less than 2 percent of executed prisoners become vengeful spirits and kill again.

You can argue the first one all day long, we don't pick a side there. But the second one simply isn't true, and science has the numbers to prove it. A 2000 New York Times special report found that as a deterrent that keeps people from committing violent crimes, capital punishment sucks like a black hole eating steak through a straw.

In fact, between 1980 and 2000, death penalty states have had average homicide rates between 48 percent and 101 percent higher than non-death penalty states. Murder rates in states with and without the death penalty tend to rise and fall at a relatively equal rate -- the presence of the death penalty makes no difference one way or the other.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

"The guy is really sorry about this and would just like to move on from all those decapitated heads in the doorway."

It kind of makes sense; if the alternative to death is life in prison, then that particular murderer wasn't going to kill anybody else regardless of which punishment they got. It's not like, say, the difference between a harsh prison sentence and probation, where one of them at least takes the bad guy off the streets. Nobody is suggesting just letting the murderers go.

And as for the deterrent effect, the problem is that, except in rare cases, murder isn't one of those crimes somebody sits down and thinks through anyway -- if you're crazy or desperate enough to kill somebody, odds are you're not thinking about your own future in any kind of logical way. You could change the penalty to "death via having weasels eat your scrotum" and it's not going to make a difference to the enraged jealous husband chasing a man through his house with a shotgun. That's the thing; if criminals were rational enough to consider what the law says and then act logically based on a carefully considered calculation of risk versus reward, they wouldn't be criminals.

The 6 Most Popular Crime Fighting Tactics (That Don't Work)

"Aw jeez, this is really going to look bad on my performance report."

Robert Evans is Cracked's head of article captions and also writes about doubt, bad cops and worse media. He can be reached at

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