The national scandal of using police as revenue generators


The town of Parma, MO that I wrote about yesterday that had a population of just 740 and yet six police officers is not the only small Missouri with such a weird ratio. Beverly Hills, MO (not to be confused with its better known California counterpart) has easily bettered that, having 13 police officers for its population of just 600, or one officer for every city block.

Like many small cities, the police are used less for fighting crime and more for raising revenues, and the city says that this is not unusual.

In 2013, the town’s municipal court generated $221,164 (or $387 for each of its residents), with much of the fees coming from ticketing non-residents.

In a town like Beverly Hills, with almost no industry and a minuscule tax base, what makes civic initiatives possible is also what denies many people their freedom: tickets, and lots of them.

In 2014, Beverly Hills police officers wrote 3,818 tickets. The number seems immense given the town’s size, but according to Buchannan, it is not notable. “Some communities write that in a month,” he protests, noting that towns like Kirkwood, the majority white middle-class suburb where he grew up, have written a high number to little media scrutiny.

Jackson, the alderman, also sees no problem, noting that Missouri’s white rural towns escape scrutiny too. “Let’s look at these rural towns. You have a town with 63 people. They have police. They’re writing tickets. And nobody’s questioning their survival. Only ours.”

But in Beverly Hills, there two major differences when compared to Ferguson. One is that the police mostly ticket people passing through and who are not residents of the town thus not generating friction between the police and its own residents, somewhat like a small town called Linndale just outside Cleveland with a population of less than 200 people that generates nearly a million dollars in speeding tickets each year from transient drivers .

There is also another difference.

Ferguson’s white mayor, mostly white council, majority white police force and majority black population made it a national symbol of racial discrimination. The same cannot be said for Beverly Hills. Every town official is black; nearly all of its police force, including Chief Buchannan, is black; and 94% of the population is black. Both Buchannan and Jackson describe Beverly Hills as a peaceful and friendly community – and put the police at the center of that description.

Clearly this problem of using police to generate revenue is not limited to Missouri but has become a national scandal as municipalities everywhere look for ways to raise revenues without raising taxes.

The website Funny or Die has taken the video of a Missouri tourism commercial and added a new voiceover that draws your attention to recent events and highlights the fact that there are no black people in the ad at all.

Comments

  1. says

    For decades now the cry has been “CUT TAXES!” and that cry has been so successful even centrist and left-leaning politicians have succumbed to it. As it turns out, people also still want their governments to be able to do things but aren’t able to connect the “doing things” with the “needing to be able to pay to do those things”. The results are becoming increasingly outrageous as taxes continue being cut, but still people aren’t able to connect the results to the actions.

  2. Chiroptera says

    As it turns out, people also still want their governments to be able to do things but aren’t able to connect the “doing things” with the “needing to be able to pay to do those things”.

    To make it worse, people also believe that most of their tax money goes to support welfare cheats and aid to foreign anti-American countries. They think that all the politicians have to do is relatively minor adjustments to the budget and — zounds! — lower taxes and a balanced budget!

  3. bmiller says

    color me skeptical about a deeper structural issue: Why does a metropolitan area “need” incorporated enclaves that can never really support themselves fiscally? Why is there a mythical village of Beverly Hills, with 600 people, in the midst of a large metro area like St. Louis.

    St Louis needs to do what Louisville did. Consolidate. And don;t let the Ladues and Town and Country Villages opt out. They are all residents of ST. LOUIS, mythical separatism aside. There does not need to be dozens of independent “cities” right next to each other.

  4. lorn says

    The GOP, and associated supply-siders, have made taxes a dirty word. Just the merest mention of raising taxes can lose a candidate an election. Bush senior back tracked on his ‘read my lips’ rhetoric and lost. It isn’t likely that was the only reason he failed, but it certainly didn’t help any. On the other hand, coming down hard on criminals, making them pay for the criminality in their lives and punishing them for non-compliance, is good politics and it brings in votes from the right.

    Raising money on the backs of the poor through fines and charges is bad public policy and destructive to social order but most politicians are worried more about getting, and staying in, office than the long term social stability of the society or legitimacy of the government.

  5. gog says

    @bmiller #3

    If you can grok legalese, Title VII of the Missouri Revised Statutes contains the information as to how these cities exist.

    As far as I can tell, a complete consolidation of the cities and villages and unincorporated areas (“towns” don’t exist in Missouri) around St. Louis would require special action by the general assembly and major restructuring of the various affected government units.

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The number of policemen can be understood, if at any time at least one person is on duty. 7×24 hour service and 40 working hours per week translates to five workers per warm seat.
    But as bmiller points out above, a small village next to a big city doesn’t need its own police department.

  7. says

    If those towns were more honest (“You have have to pay a $40 toll upon entry to our jurisdiction…”) it might be more tolerable.

    An unmentioned problem about ticketing is that it will likely go into national systems. If you get a $2 fine for an expired metre in a town you visit and leave without paying, you can end up under arrest in another area, subjected to police violence and jail time. If you think it’s limited to a single country, it isn’t. It’s starting to be an international problem.

    http://www.driverabroad.com/self-drive/foreign-speeding-and-parking-fines/

    More and more, I’m convinced that systems like these are designed to criminalize the entire population of countries. I’m expecting the day to come when it’s not just those convicted of felonies who can’t vote, but anyone with an arrest record. Given the number of attempts in the US to disenfranchise people of their right to vote, it’s not paranoia to suggest it.

  8. Drew says

    @#3

    The problem is that because of historical reasons the city of St. Louis lies in a different county than the rest of the surrounding metro/suburb area.

    So Consolidating into a single city can’t work under the law.

    It’s kind of weird actually. The “City of St. Louis” is it’s own county. It is surrounded on all sides (minus the river side) by “St. Louis County”. All of the minor municipal areas (Ferguson, Florissant, Kirkwood, Town and Country, Ladue, etc and the vast majority of the money) in the area lie outside of “the city” and are all in “the county”. The County people don’t want to be part of the city (mostly for classist reasons). With more money comes more political clout and (I believe) there are more people living in the county than in the city (It’s larger geographically as well).

    The people in the various townships in the county also, often, don’t particularly care for each other (again for mostly classist reasons).

    Occasionally, a politician suggests marging the county that is “The City of St. Louis” with the county that is “St. Louis County” into a single county (not even merging the municipalities, just making it so that the City of St. Louis is actually in St. Louis County) and it is never seriously considered by anyone outside of the City of St. Louis because the county people don’t want to have to absorb any of the problems associated with the City, nor allow the city people a say in the running of the county (again, mostly for classist reasons).

    That being said, “St. Louis County” is just like any other county in that people can form up their own township if they want. There are a lot of small cities in St. Louis County (like a lot), and there is a lot of unincorporated area in the county as well. Whether you’re in one of the county cities or in an unincorporated area, it all pretty much looks like an average suburb (with a few exceptions, for example the county seat is in the city of Clayton which has developed into a sort of mini-metropolitan area of its own with skyscrapers and such) in various states of repair/disrepair.

    Many of the small cities in “the county” have changed significantly as a result of urban sprawl. The area around Fergusson, for example, had been the home of highly affluent people, 50 or 60 years ago. As they moved out, they took the tax base with them (Originally they were set up as cities simply so that they could pass their own laws and weren’t concerned with things like businesses because they could pay for their own upkeep). People living in them wanted to keep these now insolvent cities intact, mostly because having the ability to vote for politicians at a more local level makes them feel like they have a bigger say in how things work.

    This is really funny because none of them really concern themselves with anything going on in the local government. And so you end up with a system of government which exists only to keep itself existing.

  9. Jenora Feuer says

    As it turns out, people also still want their governments to be able to do things but aren’t able to connect the “doing things” with the “needing to be able to pay to do those things”.

    I remember, some thirty years ago now, listening to the radio to a ‘man on the street’ interview where somebody was ranting about an increase in property taxes for school improvements, and made a comment along the lines of ‘why can’t they use their own money for a change?’

    Even in high school, the level of disconnect required to not recognize that pretty much all of the government’s ‘own money’ came from the same taxes he was complaining about just boggled me.

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