The Real Problem Behind Ferguson: Municipal Pirates

People claim the real problem behind Ferguson is racism. Stereotypes naturally feed into a problem that allows people to have arbitrary power over others. But that is not the same thing as racism. The problem is a patchwork of municipal zones of power and revenue acquisition.

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No one will necessarily agree with everything in Radley Balko’s amazing Washington Post story. Some of the critics of the system call other critics “zealots,” so readers are expected to read with some discernment.

But I still found the piece riveting (despite how long it is). Perhaps some events in my recent past made me more open to Balko’s case.

A few years ago I 1) worked a night shift, and 2) drove a car that was the opposite of new or expensive. So I learned how easy it was to get caught up in the cop scavenger revenue system. The first time was in Illinois and I was pulled over by a lying pig who said I was “swerving.” I hadn’t swerved despite his dangerous driving, kissing his headlights into my rear windshield for a mile. I wasn’t drunk like he was hoping so he let me go after checking me out.

The second time was not so gratuitous (and I’m not as upset about it). It rained blindingly hard as I was driving home from work around 3 a.m. The moisture knocked out one of my headlights. So I was pulled over in St. Louis County for having only one headlight. Then it turned out that my driver’s license had expired a few days earlier. I had never received notice and hadn’t remembered the expiration was that year (I don’t often take out my driver’s license and read it). So the officer gave me a ticket and told me if I explained the circumstances that nothing would happen to me. (Except I would still have to pay a fine for the court’s time, something he left out of the picture).

I showed up on my court date and got to see a bunch of losers get shaken down by middle class suits. I saw a lot of people who needed wisdom but who obviously had no one to teach them. The powers that be were far more interested in extracting cash from them. It was an assembly line.

I think people in lower classes are commonly misled; they believe and practice things that aren’t in their best interests. But I also think the municipal system feeds on this and reinforces it. The system is the true parasite and the greater welfare queen, living off the poor. No one may plan this or want this, but it is what has happened.

Balko’s main thesis is that there are too many tiny towns that rely on “law enforcement” as a source of revenue. While Balko doesn’t deny the racism angle, he does show that there is a more fundamental problem:

Here’s one quotation that stands out: “I was actually let go as a municipal judge from a town because I wasn’t generating enough revenue.”

Here’s a quotation from a defense attorney:

“I was representing a client in a poorer town and was negotiating with a prosecutor who was also the municipal prosecutor in a wealthier town,” Voss says. “He actually told me that if we were in the wealthier town he could cut my client a deal. But he couldn’t do it in the poorer town, because there was more pressure on him to generate revenue.”

Notice the perversity that wealthier towns have other sources of revenue but the elected rulers of a small poor town will hire police as revenue hunters and hunt for the right judge to pursue city income.

Here’s another quotation from the same defense attorney:

And Voss recalls one incident in which after successfully negotiating with a prosecutor to reduce his clients’ fines, the prosecutor replied, “You’re taking money right out of my pocket, here.”

“That sounds shocking, right?” Voss asks. “But if you’ve been in these courts a while, it isn’t really all that controversial thing to say.”

And, while this is quite often perceived as mostly white cops making life hard for mostly black residents, that is an accident. When you change the racial equation, the oppression doesn’t change.

If any town could overcome the legacy of structural racism that drew the map of St. Louis County, then, it would be Berkeley. And yet this town of 9,000 people still issued 10,452 traffic citations last year, and another 1,271 non-traffic ordinance violations. The town’s municipal court raised over $1 million in fines and fees, or about $111 per resident. The town issued 5,504 arrest warrants last year, and has another 13,436 arrest warrants outstanding. Those are modest numbers for St. Louis County, but they’re high for just about anywhere else.

We still need ways to get people to acquire car insurance or not drive. So we do need some enforcement mechanisms. But the current system is far too perverse.

At one point, Balko mentions merging city and county governments as a solution. That would be horrible. The city wants to foist its financial problems on a bigger population. But Balko’s other idea of smaller towns needing to merge into larger ones has some merit.

As far as Ferguson is concerned, the chances of anything constructive happening are slim.

“What I fear is that the federal government or some private foundations are going to throw a bunch of grants at St. Louis, and the same people who have been sitting at the table for years, contributing to the problem, will be the ones divvying up the money,” Harvey says. “There will be a bunch of diversity training, the money will disappear, and things will go back to the way they’ve been. That’s what I fear.”

That’s what I fear too. The problem is not primarily race nor the militarization of the police in this case (though that doesn’t help) but rather the multiplication of authorized revenue-hunters seeking out those especially who can’t afford a lawyer.

Let me indulge in one more personal story. One night (not so late). My wife had a flat tire. We had just ended a roadside service so I had to change it myself after over a decade since the last time. A cop pulled up and I got nervous because we were in the street (there was no room to really  pull off the road, though it was easily wide enough to accommodate traffic around us, especially at that time of night). It entered my mind that he might find reason to find fault since I was taking a long time to do a relatively simple task.

But he didn’t. He was entirely helpful and told us that it was a matter of common sense that we were no danger to anyone right now as long as our emergency blinkers were on. He held his flashlight for me and advised me on where there was free air so I could fill up my flat doughnut. It was a wonderful experience of a police officer protecting and serving.

But that was in Kirkwood, a city that has many other sources of revenue besides their courthouse. That’s the kind of place where a friendly, helpful police officer can be kept on the force and appreciated. But in smaller, poorer towns, such a person might be seen as more of a liability than a benefit to the police department.

Read Balko’s piece. It is well worth your time!