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Shaking Down Poor People Is Tied To Police Violence

Lurking beneath this violence is a fiscal menace: police departments forced to assist city officials in raising revenue, in many cases funding their own salaries.
Shaking Down Poor People Is Tied To Police Violence
Image from: Elvert Barnes

I started noticing this trend 30 years ago, as towns began to plug budget holes with zealous over-enforcement and ticket-writing. We'll already seen how that works in Ferguson, Missouri -- but it's happening everywhere. David Corn and Kevin Drum via Mother Jones:

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."

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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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.

Here's an ironic kicker: When she died, Sandra Bland already owed over $7000 in court fines.

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