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Excessive police fines substantially decrease public safety, study reveals
Handing out tickets might be distracting police departments from working on more serious crimes.
- Recent research uncovered that the more a city's police department collects fines and fees, the less effective they are at solving crimes.
- In cities where violent crimes are not solved, trust in the police goes down. As a result, citizens report fewer crimes to the police, causing a vicious cycle.
- To address this, cities need to focus less on fining those who break minor laws and focus more on violent/property crimes.
For those of you who've traveled through the U.S. on a road trip before, this is probably a familiar experience. The miles are slipping by, and you're zooming along at a comfortable 70 miles per hour. A speed-limit sign zips by: 35 miles per hour. Suddenly, a Crown Victoria with blue and red flashing lights and a siren pulls out of a side street concealed by the trees. Minutes later, you've earned yourself a $90 ticket and some points on your car insurance.
Sure, regulating speed is important, but some cities in America seem hell-bent on applying the squeeze. It might ruin your day, but for the city, it's a great way to drum up some extra revenue. But, it turns out that police departments that focus on collecting fines and fees for the city also do a worse job at solving crimes.
Keeping their eyes on the money
The revenue from fines and fees like parking tickets are used to bump up the city's budget.
Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel
A recent study published in Urban Affairs Review took a look at the correlation between how much money cities collected through police departments and how well those police departments solved crimes. About 80% of U.S. cities get some portion of their revenue from the fines and fees levied by police departments. The worst 6% of these cities relied on fines and fees for as much as 10% of their revenue. If you were hoping to figure out which cities to avoid on your next road trip, the study regrettably did not name them.
The researchers found a startingly correlation: for every 1% of a city's budget that was derived from police fees and fines, 6.1% fewer violent crimes and 8.3% fewer property crimes were solved.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at three different data sets.
- The Census of Governments, which collects data on the budget compositions of the roughly 90,000 local governments in the U.S., including how much of their budget comes from fines and fees
- The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data, which collects statistics on violent crimes (like murder) and property crimes (like car theft or burglary) as well as how many of those crimes have been solved
- The Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, which contains data on the size of police forces, their budget, the various roles of a city's police officers, and other statistics on local law enforcement
Looking through these data sets and examining the relationships within, the researchers came up with a few different explanations for why collecting more fines lowered crime clearance rates.
Why levying fines lowers efficacy
Part of the reason why more fines issued means fewer crimes solved is that fining people takes up a significant chunk of a police officer's time.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images
First, aggressively enforcing laws that accrue fines and fees (like setting up speed traps) can use up the time officers would otherwise use to solve crimes. Importantly, smaller cities—those with less than 28,010 citizens—had the strongest relationship between higher revenue collection and lower crime-solving rates.
This is because larger cities generally have specialized police forces, where some officers specifically enforce laws that generate city revenue and other officers pursue violent crime or property crime. Smaller cities don't have this luxury. Generally, their police officers do every kind of job a police officer might do. So, when the city puts a greater emphasis on collecting revenue, the officers have less time to do their work.
The study also offered another explanation. Research shows that the more negative interactions there are with police officers, the less a population trusts those officers. Traffic stops are by far the most common type of interaction between the general public and the police. Not only are these inherently unpleasant interactions between the police and a citizen, but the increased rate of traffic stops also increases the likelihood that something will go wrong.
With less trust between a population and its police, 911 is called less frequently, making it more difficult to solve crimes. What's more, this leads to a vicious cycle—research has also shown that a higher rate of unsolved violent crimes leads to less trust in the police.
Who’s getting squeezed?
The study found that African-American and poor communities tended to be fined the most.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Since we're talking about broken police practices in America, it'll come as no surprise that rich, white folk aren't the ones getting screwed. The study noted that "cities with a higher number of African-Americans, less-educated residents, lower tax revenues, and lower […] representation of minorities [in local government] tend to collect a greater share of revenues from fines and fees." Every 10% increase in the population of African-Americans in a city was also associated with a 1.1% lower rate of crime clearance. So, the more African-Americans in a city, the more likely police are to extract fines and fees from its residents and the less likely they are to work on solving crimes. This explanation also fits well with the well-studied fact that many African-American communities in U.S. cities have very little trust in the police.
It's important to note that this study didn't establish causality. Just because a police department with higher rates of fine and fee collection has lower rates of crime clearance doesn't mean the first causes the second; they're just related figures. For instance, the authors noted that higher crime rates might discourage people from moving to the city, driving down the property values. Since a city gets most of its revenue from property taxes, the city might have no choice but to aggressively fine its residents.
Ultimately, however, the effect is the same: relatively law-abiding citizens get taxed for breaking minor laws, while violent criminals and thieves get away with their crimes. If we want to fix crime in America and for our cities to prosper, police departments and city governments need to focus less on squeezing their residents for every penny and more on solving crimes that truly damage our cities.
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.