Curt Oldfield of Bonner County, Idaho, has perhaps the most unusually decorated car in the nation. It’s a 1986 Oldsmobile covered with 200 license plates carefully shaped and riveted to the hood, fenders, and doors. It’s driven mostly in parades and auto shows, but one day his daughter, lacking transportation, took it downtown. And a Bonner County sheriff’s deputy gave her a $43 ticket.
Oldfield vows to fight the ticket as a violation of his right to free expression, and perhaps he’ll eventually win. But the conflict points up a larger problem with law enforcement that affects the whole country. For several decades, a “tough on crime” mood has gripped the nation. It led to the re-establishment of capital punishment and to a sixfold increase in the size of the prison population. It has also produced an increase in the number of policemen. Between 1980 and 1996, the number of sworn law-enforcement officials jumped 40 percent, to 738,000 (the figure includes 74,000 federal officers). And since 1996, numbers have been further swelled by President Clinton’s plan to add another 100,000 officers.
At first glance, increasing the number of policemen seems to be a good way to fight crime, but few have stopped to consider the side effects of this policy. Once you’ve hired the personnel, they have to be busy, generating the paperwork that proves they are accomplishing something. It would be nice if this busyness were directed against the serious crimes that we worry about—and which were the reason for hiring the extra policemen in the first place. But unfortunately such crime happens out of sight, and policemen can’t do much about it until after the fact. Therefore, to earn their keep, policemen have to go after the people they do see: our law-abiding friends and neighbors. They have to set up speed traps, pull people over for trivial offenses, and write tickets for people who decorate their cars in unusual ways.