Sunday, November 07, 2004

A Policy Failure of the Highest Order

I can't stop thinking about Amy Donovan. She's the rookie Austin police officer who was killed in a tragic accident while chasing a pot-possession suspect in my neighborhood.

Thursday I called her a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, but that may not have given her all the credit she deserved. She was 37, my age, with four children, healthy, taking on new challenges, starting a new career. She was a mature woman making a choice to enter law enforcement, not some 22-year old adventure-seeker who thought it sounded fun. By all outward appearances, she was exactly the type of person we need in the Austin Police Department, and in law enforcement generally.

Hell, if you've raised four children you know more that's important about criminal behavior and psychology than most "experts" - a lot of everyday crimes stem more from rash, immature behavior than calculated malice. The 24-year-old Donovan was chasing when she was killed, for example, didn't wake up that morning planning to commit a second-degree felony.

I also can't help but feel badly for Donovan's partner. Both rookies, with no senior officer to rely upon, they were required to make split second decisions that turned horribly wrong. He must feel terrible. I know he'd do anything to take back what happened in those few seconds.

As I mentioned in Thursday's post, her death comes at a time that the Travis County Jail literally is stuffed to the brim, and simply can't find room for low-level drug possession offenders without spending $100 million (reg. required) at least. Already Travis County's incarceration rate is higher than the statewide average. (pdf file)

Which raises the question, if she'd arrested him, then what? We have no place to put him. And what would anyone gain from incarcerating him for pot, anyway? The number of marijuana arrests doubled in the last decade, 88 percent of them for possession, but marijuana use hasn't declined. County jails all over the state are busting at the seams with low-level offenders. Where does it all end?

That's what's been nagging at me all week. Donovan's death was worse than a tragedy, it was a policy failure of the highest order - someone died over the most trivial possible offense, one that in many parts of the country would merit at most the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

I'm sure APD will be looking to determine whether Donovan's partner followed procedure. They should also find out why their supervisor paired two rookies together, and determine if that's something the department should be doing in the future - I think the answer is almost certainly not.

That's the narrow picture. In the big picture, we need to rationalize our criminal justice policies with our values and our pocketbooks. Criminalizing the common invites risky, extremist behavior like that that caused Officer Donovan's death. This incident darkly dramatizes the costs of pot prohibition, not just monetary costs like building a new jail, but life and limb costs. Four children lost their mother, a husband his wife. A young man will go to prison for many years. A partner suffers guilt and remorse. A community mourns a tragedy.

But isn't the system set up to make another similar incident inevitable? Maybe next time it's the suspect who's run over, or an innocent bystander, but my God, for what?

Last Tuesday, the city of Oakland, CA showed us at least part of the way out of this mess by passing Measure Z, which made private, adult cannabis use the lowest enforcement priority for police. The same day, Columbia, MO authorized Proposition 2 which punishes misdemeanor marijuana cases with a ticket and max fine of $250. Now there's a policy that would lower jail costs and generate revenue. Both laws also make everyone safer by ratcheting down the intensity level of the drug war a notch.

Under Oakland's lowest-priority scenario, APD's only interaction with these four young men might have been a stern, "take it inside, fellas," while in Columbia they might be written a ticket, but couldn't have been arrested for less than 35 grams of pot. Decrimwatch points out that lowering the penalty or enforcement priority isn't a cure-all. Maybe Nicholas Jarmon still runs, maybe the same sad tale plays out; it's impossible to say. But if, as in Oakland or Columbia, marijuana enforcement was de-emphasized, possibly the same actions might not have caused the chain of events that led to this tragic accident.

My own mother died four years ago, and I've not come close to overcoming the loss, so I can't imagine what Donovan's family must be going through. They have my heartfelt sympathy and prayers.

A fund has been established to assist Officer Donovan's family, at:

Officer Amy Donovan Family Fund
via Velacity Credit Union
PO Box 1089
Austin, TX 78767
or call Austin PD @ 512.974.5017

I'm sending them a check and I hope you will too.


Anonymous said...

If the suspect hadn't run away, or hadn't been so careless as to smoke pot in public, this tradgedy wouldn't have happened either.

IMHO there is ample reason to question the law, but that doesn't absolve the suspect of responsibility for his own actions.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, did you read the article before giving your knee-jerk response? No one is trying to absolve the suspect of responsibility. That's not the point.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I said Nicholas Jarmon was rash, immature, and committed a second degree felony. He'll likely go to prison for quite a while, so one shouldn't fear anyone's "absolving" him. This kind of thing happens all the time, though.