The War on Ice Cream Men

By Charles Davis

Is the person serving your kids Mister Softee an evil murderer? No, probably not. Photo via Flickr user Martin Kelley

If you want to sell soft-serve out of a truck, be prepared to be treated like a criminal.

In Tucson, Arizona, prospective ice cream men must get their fingerprints taken by the cops before being granted a license. In Napa, California, regulations state that you must be both “interviewed and fingerprinted by the Napa Police Department.” All around the country, in fact, people who want to sell frozen treats have to check in with law enforcement first.

Don Knabe, the chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, is completely on board with this trend—in fact, he wants LA County, population 10 million, to subject every ice cream truck driver within its borders to the same screening process applied to those seeking to conduct commerce involving “explosives, weapons, and adult businesses.” That means “inkless electronic fingerprinting,” which can be used to generate “a report of criminal history” and kept in a database forever. Knabe plans on introducing the measure this May.

Why is he doing this? According to his spokesperson Cheryl Burnett, the supervisor’s interest was sparked by a call from a nervous constituent. “A resident in Hacienda Heights said that her son was followed home by an ice cream vendor and threatened,” Burnett explained. “He subsequently checked out clean by the sheriff's department, but parents still have concerns.”

Outside the realm of “concern” there are only a few isolated incidents of ice cream men committing violent crimes: In 2012 a 14-year-old girl in Raleigh, North Carolina, was allegedly abducted and assaulted by a driver, and in 2013 a 72-year-old vendor in the LA area was arrested in 2013 for allegedly violating a court order that required him to stay away from kids. If there’s an epidemic of popsicle-dealing pedophiles, it hasn’t made the news.

Still, just because the threat has not materialized does not mean it never will; it is, like almost anything in life, possible. “It would be easy to have a child walk inside the van and disappear from sight,” Burnett told me. “The potential exists for a serious situation. We have an ordinance that keeps these vendors 1,000 feet from schools, but there is concern that is not enough.”

The vendors I spoke to said they would be happy to oblige should they be asked to give over their prints—but then, what ice cream truck driver would want to be quoted by name opposing a criminal background check?

Nastasha Case, the CEO of LA-based ice cream company Coolhaus, said that she didn't have a real problem with Knabe's proposal, as many cities in the LA area already require fingerprinting of vendors. Besides, “I have nothing to hide,” she said. “Better safe then sorry!”

“How bad could a finger scan be?” asked Rick Gaez of Good Times Classic Ice Cream. But while not terribly concerned about having his own prints on file, he told me he was still a “a little conflicted.”

“I want kids to be safe, but I don't know if that will help,” he said. “That seems like such a waste of time and resources.”

Gaez also wondered if requiring fingerprints might just be a way for some local governments to “hassle immigrants for something [they] see as an eyesore.” Many food vendors in LA County are Latinos, and if you don't like them—or if you just don't like the music they play—one way to get some off the streets is by making them to register with the cops, which can scare off even those without criminal records, particularly if they’re worried about their legal status.

“Many people enter the ice cream vending industry because they found other avenues of business ownership closed to them—often because they cannot obtain traditional financing from a bank,” said Chris Long, president of the International Association of Ice Cream Distributors and Vendors. While he said his organization supports “sexual offender checks,” those checks shouldn't single out ice cream vendors or “produce an excessive time or fiscal burden,” as that could pose an insurmountable hurdle to those seeking to enter the not particularly lucrative business of selling ice cream from a truck.

Does this Flinstones-themed truck hide EVIL? Again, it's unlikely. Photo via Flickr user satanslaundromat

Again, all this scrutiny is totally unnecessary—there’s no violent crime wave being caused by ice cream men or anyone else. From 2007 to 2012, LA County experienced a 30 percent drop in reports of serious crimes like murder and rape (though it should be noted that the vast majority of rapes are never reported). Since 1982, the crime rate has dropped 61 percent. But we are taught to be afraid of each other by television, the police themselves, and now social media.

One example of this effect in action: In May 2013, police in Menomie, Wisconsin, were forced to issue a statement denying a rumor circulating that men in a white van selling ice cream were trying to abduct kids. Local news station WEAU quoted one example of the hysterical Facebook posts going around:

ATTENTION MENOMONIE AREA RESIDENTS!! There are a couple of guys in a white conversion van with MN plates that has ice cream stickers on one side and Superman/Captain America stickers on the other side. They are said to be going around Menomonie and Western Wisconsin trying to abduct women and children. This is NOT a joke, or rumor...some children in Downsville ran inside to their mom saying that the men tried to get them to go inside the van. Please keep your eyes on your children & pay attention to your surroundings!!

“Again,” the station reported, “police and deputies say this is a legitimate ice cream truck, and no women or children are in danger.”

But fear is a powerful thing, particularly when stoked by those in power who would love to have everyone's fingerprints on file—and now have the technological capacity to pull it off.

“Fingerprinting is becoming a more common part of the background checks conducted on people who work with children and other vulnerable populations,” the Boston Globe reported in October 2013, after the practice spread across the state of Massachusetts.

“These are positions that involve some amount of public access and public trust,” Belmont, Massachusetts, police captain Peter Hoerr told the Globe. Hoerr helped write a measure in his town requiring ice cream truck drivers, door-to-door salespeople, and others to be subjected to fingerprinting and background checks in order to get a business license. “This kind of checking for licenses could not have been an option ten years ago,” he said.

In the past, it would have been a burden for local police to be inundated with so many fingerprints from people unlikely to ever be implicated in a crime. It used to take an expert hours to manually examine two sets of prints, but now those prints can be stored digitally and checked against a national criminal database in a matter of seconds. As far as the police are concerned, there is no downside. They want to fingerprint entire groups of people for the same reason police departments in small towns get a tank: because they can.

And the political class is always willing to hand the police more powers, imagined threats to our children trumping concerns about civil liberties. As Wellesley Selectwoman Terri Tsagaris said in the Globe article, “there are some people who are concerned that it could become intrusive,” all this fingerprinting of people who haven't committed any crimes, but “I think that we decided we would rather err on the side of safety.”

But why stop with ice cream trucks? What about people who live near a school? Or a park? Or anyone who can ever potentially come in contact with a person under 18—should we not have their fingerprints and retina scans and DNA swabs on file, just in case? Family members are statistically more likely to harm a child than a complete stranger, so we can't forget about them, either.

Or even better, we could decide it's not worth giving the police more power to address problems that exist only on your Aunt Kathy's Facebook.

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by Al Jazeera, Inter Press Service, the New Inquiry, and Salon.

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