Anyone who pays a bit of attention to what is going on in college dorms across the country no doubt is aware of serious safety concerns associated with abuse of alcohol. The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s fact sheet on college drinking notes that more than half a million students between the ages of 18 and 24 are unintentionally injured each year while under the influence of alcohol. Nearly 700,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking (roughly one out of every 20 college students in this age group). And more than 100,000 report that they had sex when they were so inebriated that they didn’t even know whether they wanted to have sex or not.
Not surprisingly, such statistics have prompted considerable discussion and action on college campuses and in university towns. Stricter enforcement of penalties for selling alcohol to minors, working to reduce the ease of access to alcohol, and serious consequences for students engaged in alcohol abuse are among the initiatives being pursued.
This is not a new problem. But we do have some new perspective.
One element of this perspective is what campuses learned when they started imposing severe penalties for illegal possession and being found to be intoxicated.
Student violators, not surprisingly, became very concerned about being caught, fearing serious consequences.
So if a roommate, buddy or stranger who just happened to drop in became so intoxicated that they passed out, someone would lay them in a quiet room, close the door, and walk away.
Meanwhile, especially if the individual had been drinking rapidly, his/her alcohol level continued to rise. Alcohol poisoning resulted. Some died.
This prompted some soul-searching on campuses. The goal of reducing alcohol abuse clearly was worthy. But the cost, if it meant increased deaths due to alcohol poisoning, seemed an excessively high price to pay. Even if it was only one such preventable death, it was too high.
So many campuses adopted a kind of “good Samaritan” policy. If security was called to a dorm room because someone was at risk of alcohol poisoning, no action would be taken against those who made the call, even if they themselves were drunk or in possession of alcohol against policy.
I applauded this decision when it was made at the university where I was teaching. While I am deeply concerned about substance abuse, especially among our youngest citizens (though not just among them), I did not and do not believe the pursuit of illegal drinkers should trump the preservation of lives.
I remembered these developments as I read the recent strong statement by the U.S. Conference of Mayors against efforts by some members of Congress to force cities to enforce certain elements of federal immigration law. The mayors’ clear reasoning echoes the logic and wisdom of such policies in another critical area of public safety: dealing with serious crime.
Police investigations of serious crimes rely heavily upon community cooperation. When the community where crimes are occurring won’t talk with the police, law enforcement efforts are thwarted, and dangerous criminals go free.
Police departments across the country that have adopted some form of a community policing model have recognized this truth and placed considerable emphasis on building good relations with the various communities within their city. This is especially true with communities that might otherwise be distrustful of men and women in blue.
One set of communities where such trust must be built is the set of immigrant communities in our cities. Whether Latino or Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean or Eastern European, immigrants from similar backgrounds often cluster together for mutual support as they navigate our unfamiliar culture and laws. Inevitably, there will be illegal immigrants in these communities as well as legal ones. There also will be those who, while having legal status, have had experiences of being treated with suspicion and, regrettably, being deprived of their rights, or at least their dignity, on the basis of this suspicion.
When crimes involving members of these communities occur, there may be a natural reluctance to engage law enforcement out of fear of the repercussions. Only if trust has been built, and is maintained by action, can police officers hope to secure their cooperation.
What the U.S. Conference of Mayors is telling Congress is, quite simply, let us decide how best to fight crime in our communities. The statement doesn’t endorse local nullification of immigration laws. It doesn’t praise (or condemn) cities whose citizens, generally opposed to our current approach to handling illegal immigration, have sought to pursue acts of what might be called civil disobedience toward federal immigration policy.
What the statement does is remind Congress that there are consequences for every action. Compel cities to aggressively enforce every aspect of federal immigration law and Congress will both distort local priorities for law enforcement and undermine the ability of our officers to keep our cities safe.
This isn’t about whether one agrees with the idea of a “sanctuary city” or not. This is about respecting the autonomy of cities to pursue the most effective path they can identify to preserving public safety. Only the folks on the front lines of public safety in our communities are going to know how to do that.