As the nationwide unrest over the harassment and killing of people, especially poor and black, by police continues, Jack Hitt at Mother Jones notes that many of these violent confrontations began with what appear to be really trivial offenses and that this can be traced back to local governments using the fines generated by minor offenses as a way of plugging budget shortfalls.
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.
I have noted this use of police as revenue generators before, the most extreme form of it being the civil asset forfeiture racket. But that is just part of the whole story. As Hitt points out, the percentage of budgets that are raised by this kinds of taxes on the poor are incredible and enabled by cities adding on more and more arcane regulations so as to increase the chance of people falling afoul of the law.
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.
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. [My italics-MS]
Ferguson may be more extreme but is by no means exceptional.
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.”
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.”
This is all a consequence of the grand scheme of shifting taxes from the rich to the poor. What states are doing is cutting income and other taxes (which reduce the taxes of the rich disproportionately) and then balancing state budgets by cutting programs and services and also reducing the amount of state income tax revenue that is distributed to the local communities. These cities then raise money to fill their gaps by fining the population.
But not everyone has an equal chance of getting fined for trivial infractions. It is the poor who are more likely to be fined for being in violation of some ordinance because they are more likely to not fix a broken taillight or something because they do not have the ready cash. If I get cited for some minor infraction like a sagging gutter or a missing license plate, I can afford to get it fixed quickly. But if I am poor, it may not be possible to do so in time to avoid a fine.
Notice the uproar over red light and speeding cameras with the argument being made that these were introduced as revenue generators and not for safety reasons. That may well be true even though those cameras also serve a safety purpose. But why was it that this particular revenue-generating law created such a furor that Ohio’s state legislature actually passed a law banning them unless a police officer was present at the scene, which seems to defeat the purpose? Why was this law singled out for statewide elimination? I believe the reason is that many people speed and run red lights. But cameras are indiscriminate, catching rich and poor alike, and you will always be caught. Requiring a police officer to be present not only reduces your chances of being nabbed, rich people feel that they can often talk police out of giving them a ticket and be let off with a warning.
So what starts out as a revenue-generating scheme for local communities ends up being a constant source of friction between police and poor communities that are largely minority, with predictable consequences.
When the poor come to understand that they are likely to be detained and fined for comically absurd crimes, it can’t be a surprise to the police that their officers are viewed with increasing distrust. In this environment, running away from a cop is not an act of suspicion; it’s common sense.
Take Los Angeles that can fine people up to $250 for jaywalking. Who is more likely to get fined? And once fined, who is more likely to pay the fine and not have other fines added on or serve jail time for non-payment? And if you have a warrant out for your arrest for non-payment, what are you likely to do if a police officer looks like they might stop you for some other trivial offense?
So the way to reduce police confrontations with the public may be as simple as raising income taxes and distributing the increased revenue to cities so that they do not need to nickel-and-dime their residents. Police can then go back to combating crime and not serve as tax collectors.