Support Your Local Police Department…Er, Collection Agency

Facing tough budget challenges, growing numbers of cities and towns are turning to a new source to raise revenue: their police departments.

Yes, their police departments.

Instead of letting police officers do their real job, which is “to protect and serve,” they’re passing new laws and enforcing old ones that seem to exist for only one purpose: to raise money for the town.

Mother Jones, The Curmudgeon’s favorite liberal magazine, recently published a fascinating report on this fairly recent development. The following are excerpts from the article that he found especially interesting. (Actually, the entire article is interesting and worth a few minutes of your time: find it here.)

We saw a glimpse of this when the Justice Department released its report on Ferguson in March. In his statement, then-Attorney General Eric Holder referenced a lady in town whose life sounded Walter Scott-like. She had received two parking tickets totaling $151. Her efforts to pay those fines fell so behind that she eventually paid out more than $500. At one point, she was jailed for nonpayment and—eight years later—still owes $541 in accrued fees.

The judge largely responsible for the extraction of these fees from Ferguson’s poor, Ronald J. Brockmeyer, owed $172,646 in back taxes, a sum orders of magnitude greater than any late fine coming before his bench. Even as he was jailing black ladies for parking tickets, Brockmeyer was allegedly erasing citations for white Ferguson residents who happened to be his friends. After the report’s publication, he resigned so that Ferguson could “begin its healing process.”

But consider: In 2010, this collaboration between the Ferguson police and the courts generated $1.4 million in income for the city. This year, they will more than double that amount—$3.1 million—providing nearly a quarter of the city’s $13 million budget, almost all of it extracted from its poorest African American citizens. 

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“Essentially, these small towns in urban areas have municipal infrastructure that can’t be supported by the tax base, and so they ticket everything in sight to keep the town functioning,” said William Maurer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who has been studying the sudden rise in “nontraffic-related fines.”

Take the St. Louis suburb of Pagedale, where, among other Norman Rockwell-worthy features deemed illegal, “you can’t have a hedge more than three feet high,” Maurer says. “You can’t have a basketball hoop or a wading pool in front of a house. You can’t have a dish antenna on the front of your house. You can’t walk on the roadway if there is a sidewalk, and if there is not a sidewalk, they must walk on the left side of the roadway. They must walk on the right of the crosswalk. They can’t conduct a barbecue in the front yard and can’t have an alcoholic beverage within 150 feet of a barbecue. Kids cannot play in the street. They also have restrictions against pants being worn below the waist in public. Cars must be within 500 feet of a lamp or a source of illumination during nighttime hours. Blinds must be neatly hung in respectable appearance, properly maintained, and in a state of good repair.”

Where did this Kafkaesque laundry list come from? Maurer explains that in 2010, Missouri passed a law that capped the amount of city revenue that any agency could generate from traffic stops. The intent was to limit small-town speed traps, but the unintentional consequences are now clear: Pagedale saw a 495 percent increase in nontraffic-related arrests. “In Frontenac, the increase was 364 percent,” Maurer says. “In Lakeshire, it was 209 percent.”

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A different strategy in San Diego simply tacks on various fees to an existing fine. A 2012 Union Tribune investigation revealed that while speeding is a simple $35 fine, other government agencies can tack on as many as 10 other surcharges, including: a state penalty assessment, $40; county penalty assessment, $36; court construction, $20; state surcharge, $8; DNA identification, $16; criminal conviction fee, $35; court operations, $40; emergency medical air transportation penalty, $4; and night court, $1. When it’s all said and done, that $35 ticket comes to $235.

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There is still no comprehensive study to determine just how many cities pay their bills by indenturing the poor, but it is probably no coincidence that when you examine the recent rash of police killings, you find that the offenses they were initially stopped for were preposterously minor. Bland’s lane change signal, DuBose’s missing plate. Walter Scott had that busted taillight—which, we all later learned, is not even a crime in South Carolina. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes. When Darren Wilson was called to look into a robbery, the reason he initially stopped Michael Brown was for walking in the street—in Ferguson, an illegal act according to Section 44-344 of the local code. Between 2011 and 2013, 95 percent of the perpetrators of this atrocity were African American, meaning that “walking while black” is not a punch line. It is a crime.

And not just a crime, but a crime that comes with fines that are strictly enforced. In 2014, Ferguson’s bottom-line-driven police force issued 16,000 arrest warrants to three-fourths of the town’s total population of 21,000. Stop and think about that for a moment: In Ferguson, 75 percent of all residents had active outstanding arrest warrants. Most of the entire city was a virtual plantation of indentured revenue producers.

Back in Pagedale, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jennifer Mann recently calculated  a 500 percent increase in petty fines over the last five years. “Pagedale handed out 2,255 citations for these types of offenses last year,” Mann wrote, “or nearly two per household.”

“Once the system is primed for maximizing revenue—starting with fines and fine enforcement,” Holder said apropos Ferguson, “the city relies on the police force to serve, essentially, as a collection agency for the municipal court rather than a law enforcement entity.”

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In Alabama, a circuit court judge, Hub Harrington, wrote a blistering opinion three years ago asserting that the Shelby County Jail had become a kind of “debtors’ prison” and that the court system had devolved into a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” This pattern leads to a cruel paradox: One arm of the state is paying a large sum to lock up a person who can’t pay a small sum owed to a different arm of the state. The result? Bigger state deficits. As the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program put it, “Having taxpayers foot a bill of $4,000 to incarcerate a man who owes the state $745 or a woman who owes a predatory lender $425 and removing them from the job force makes sense in no reasonable world.”

 

 

 

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