Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Long booking times a strong argument for police using citation authority

Keeping more officers on the street for longer periods of time is perhaps the best argument for police to use their new authority granted by the Legislature last year to issue citations for low-level misdemeanors, followed as a close second by the fact that doing so reduces jail overcrowding.

There's a significant opportunity cost involved with arresting somebody for driving with no insurance or possession of a joint: Most notably, while the officer is booking an arrestee into the jail, they're not available to respond to more serious crimes. In that vein, the FOX TV station in El Paso had a story last night about how much time it takes officers to process arrestees into the jail:
When a patrol officer out on the field makes an arrest, he takes the suspect downtown to the El Paso County Jail to book that person -- a process that can take any where from 20 minutes to almost two hours. One of the first steps is to have the suspect screened by a nurse. El Paso Sheriff Jimmy Apodaca said it's one step that may not always go very smoothly."

Maybe he has a contagious disease, maybe he's been hurt, he's complaining of chest pains. Whatever it is, the nurse will evaluate him," said Apodaca.

Apodaca explains the medical exam takes the longest because there's only one nurse and because they must attend to the suspects medical needs as part of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. During the 4th of July weekend, officers were required to sign in when they arrived and when they left. He said even with one nurse the log sheet indicated the average time was about 30 minutes.

"The next step, which is the intake window, this is where we require the officer have reports ready for us. We also search the individual so he doesn't have any contraband on him," said Apodaca.

Apodaca said he's well aware of the importance of getting officers back on the field and he says steps are being taken to improve booking times.
It should be mentioned that El Paso police don't typically have the same long drive times as, say, Dallas or Houston, where it may take quite a bit of time (and petrol) driving to and from the jail in addition to booking.

I'd be interested to know what proportion of arrests in El Paso could have been otherwise resolved with a citation? In Austin, a study found that 37% of all arrests were for offenses where officers could have given a citation.

There's a big opportunity cost to doing that: Each time it happens, it's like taking an extra officer off the force for however long booking takes. In aggregate, that's a lot of officer-hours spent shuttling penny ante cases to and from the jail that could and should be spent protecting the public.

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