How to Doom a Police Tax

Jury Duty

A shorter version of this article appeared on December 5, 2004 in The Los Angeles Times.

"On my most recent trip to court, what I think I learned is why Measure A--the attempt to raise the sales tax in Los Angeles County to 8.75% to pay for more police and sheriff's deputies--failed in the last election. "

Jury duty, always a chore, is sometimes a learning experience. On my most recent trip to court, what I think I learned is why Measure A--the attempt to raise the sales tax in Los Angeles County to 8.75% to pay for more police and sheriff's deputies--failed in the last election.

Though it won a majority of the votes cast, Measure A fell short of the required 60% for several reasons. One was a suspicion on the part of some voters that the new money rather than paying for new law enforcement officers would be used to buy pay increases for the existing officers. Another was that a sales tax falls far harder on poor people who must spend all they earn just to make ends meet than on rich people who spend some and invest the rest. In effect, then, Measure A would make the poor buy policing for the rich. But a third, less noticed reason may be a certain skepticism, especially in anti-Measure A neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles, toward Police Chief William J. Bratton's "broken window" school of policing, according to which cracking down on petty crime like vandalism (the iconic broken window) creates a cultural climate in which serious crime does not thrive.

The "broken window" philosophy has to a significant degree proven its merit. But all good ideas are subject to abuse. The abuse of this good idea comes about when a police officer, rather than pursue a serious, perhaps dangerous criminal, goes after crime so petty it can't even be compared to a broken window. When that happens, folks start to wonder what kind of protection their tax dollars are buying.

On trial when I began jury duty was a young Latino kid whose offense was selling cigarettes on a street corner without the proper tax stamp on the packages and without a vendor's license. We prospective jurors were given to understand that there was no plaintiff in this case other than the County. That is, no merchant had complained that streetcorner sales were eating into his business. No neighborhood resident had complained that quality of life was being negatively affected. The only witness against the kid, we were informed, would be the police officer who had arrested him.

As a part of voir dire, every prospective juror was asked whether he or she had been a victim of the kind of crime of which the defendant was accused. One juror asked for a clarification: Did the judge mean to ask whether the juror had ever been victimized by somebody selling cigarettes to him without the proper stamp and without a vendor's license? The juror's innocent query made it awkwardly clear that this crime-in effect, tax evasion so minor it could be measured in pennies--was virtually victimless. But when voir dire resumed after a lunch break, the judge advised the prospective jurors as a group that it was not their responsibility to make the laws. He asked for a show of hands: Would any prospective juror be unable to evaluate the facts objectively even while disapproving of the law in question? Later, the prosecuting attorney again asked for a show of hands: Did any prospective juror think this trial a waste of time and money because it was not as important as, say, a murder trial?

Not as important as a murder trial? The offense in question was not as important as a tricycle theft or as graffiti in a public lavatory. Clearly, both the judge and the prosecutor knew this. As for the jurors, wearily eager to get things over with, they mostly just gave the answers-or delivered the hands-in-lap silence-expected of them. But they came away from the trial, I suspect, with a sense that if this was the "broken window" school of policing at work, then it definitely had a downside. One prospective juror, a black woman, reported being the victim of a serious crime, a home burglary, and was asked whether on that occasion she had any complaint about police conduct. "It was fine what they did," she replied with a suppressed snort of laughter, "what little it was."

That rather captures the glum mood in the room and goes some distance, I think, to explain why the police tax is a hard sell. The Los Angeles Times in an unsigned editorial in favor of Measure A said that, yes, it was regressive and would hurt the poor, but there was unfortunately no alternative to it. But state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) proposes making the police tax a tax on the airport, port and Department of Water and Power rather than a sales tax, while the most equitable police tax of all would be a small hike in the property tax, which would fall lightly on South Central but heavily on the pricier parts of town that seem to want increased policing most.

So, maybe there is an alternative, after all; but even if there isn't, proponents of the tax need to remember that law enforcement wins few votes in low-income parts of town by cracking down on poor kids trying to hustle a meager living. Whether on the street or in the courthouse, even people who want tough policing do notice how the police are spending their time; and come time for a new police tax, they remember.