Some Charlotte City Council members have been contemplating using “public safety zones” to bar suspected troublemakers from specific areas. That leaves a lot of folks concerned. And rightfully so.
We all grow up believing we have the constitutional right to visit any public space we care to, as long as we’re not committing any crimes. These exclusionary zones upend that thinking. If you’ve been previously arrested for the specific crime being attacked in the zone, your presence itself is criminalized.
You could get a variance if you have good reason to be there, like needing to care for a child, or you work there.
Still, the idea unsettles many, and conjures fears it could facilitate more of the aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics that often thicken tensions between police and minorities.
Claire Fallon, head of the council’s public safety committee, tells the editorial board her panel discussed the exclusion zone concept recently, but as far as she’s concerned it has too many flaws to merit adoption by the full council.
We share those concerns. The city has had success with similar zones in the past – one aimed at the Hidden Valley Kings gang in north Charlotte, the other at westside prostitution. While we have applauded such efforts in this space, applying the concept more broadly could prove perilous. The reception afforded it in the nation’s courts “has been mixed and in some cases icy,” according to a memo Deputy City Attorney Mark Newbold sent the committee.
Such efforts often generate strong legal challenges on grounds that they violate citizens’ constitutional rights to gather or move around freely. Research also suggests that, rather than stamping out crime, such zones often push it to neighboring areas.
Members of the council’s public safety panel appear to understand that any such ordinance must be narrowly and carefully tailored, and even then might not withstand legal scrutiny.
Fallon stresses that the discussion was merely exploratory; the panel made no formal move to put the issue before the full council. Still, it isn’t clear that council members have completely closed the door on the subject, either.
Given the stubborn crime some communities face, it is understandable that council member Al Austin – who represents parts of west Charlotte – helped lead the push to explore exclusion zones.
But the city is still healing from the racially charged manslaughter case of former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick. New Chief Kerr Putney is trying to build a relationship with the community.
Given that, as well as ongoing tensions nationally between police and black communities, the council should exhaust all other law enforcement options before giving serious consideration to this one.