There has been so much partisanship and misinformation about America’s police and about race in general these past few years, it’s understandable that conservatives get defensive when the topics come up–and certainly when they are fused in one story. But conservatives should set all that aside and embrace the Holder Justice Department’s thorough report on the toxic municipal policing in Ferguson, Missouri. Holder’s report is a public service. And it would be a tremendous wasted opportunity not to engage in this argument. An abusive government run amok should never escape conservatives’ ire.
The first thing conservatives should note about the report is that yes, Ferguson appears to have a race problem. Here are some, but by no means all, of the more troubling statistics:
African Americans are 2.07 times more likely to be searched during a vehicular stop but are 26% less likely to have contraband found on them during a search. They are 2.00 times more likely to receive a citation and 2.37 times more likely to be arrested following a vehicular stop. …
African Americans are 68% less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by the Municipal Judge, and in 2013 African Americans accounted for 92% of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued.
There certainly does seem to be a two-tiered system of justice, and no amount of racial demagoguery from this White House or its partisans should turn conservatives away from recognizing it.
But the most fascinating part of the report is that it details precisely how the abusive policing is structured. It is a damning portrait of too-powerful government in desperate need of reform, and it should be required reading for every member of Congress.
At the core of the report is the fact that the city uses its police force as a revenue-collection tool. This is not limited to Ferguson, of course. But it’s worth looking at Ferguson to see how easily the wheels come off when this is the operative strategy. “The City has budgeted for, and achieved, significant increases in revenue from municipal code enforcement over the last several years, and these increases are projected to continue,” the report tells us. The city sets a revenue target and tells the police to go get it.
The city is now raising millions a year in fees and fines. This is where the scheme really comes alive:
Our review of police and court records suggests that much of the harm of Ferguson’s law enforcement practices in recent years is attributable to the court’s routine use of arrest warrants to secure collection and compliance when a person misses a required court appearance or payment. In a case involving a moving violation, procedural failures also result in the suspension of the defendant’s license. And, until recently, the court regularly imposed a separate Failure to Appear charge for missed appearances and payments; that charge resulted in an additional fine in the amount of $75.50, plus $26.50 in court costs. See Ferguson Mun. Code § 13-58 (repealed Sept. 23, 2014). During the last three years, the court imposed roughly one Failure to Appear charge per every two citations or summonses issued by FPD. Since at least 2010, the court has collected more revenue for Failure to Appear charges than for any other charge. …
Thus, while the municipal court does not generally deem the code violations that come before it as jail-worthy, it routinely views the failure to appear in court to remit payment to the City as jail-worthy, and commonly issues warrants to arrest individuals who have failed to make timely payment. Similarly, while the municipal court does not have any authority to impose a fine of over $1,000 for any offense, it is not uncommon for individuals to pay more than this amount to the City of Ferguson—in forfeited bond payments, additional Failure to Appear charges, and added court fees—for what may have begun as a simple code violation. In this way, the penalties that the court imposes are driven not by public safety needs, but by financial interests.
And how do such “violations” pile up? The report tells us that “It is often difficult for an individual who receives a municipal citation or summons in Ferguson to know how much is owed, where and how to pay the ticket, what the options for payment are, what rights the individual has, and what the consequences are for various actions or oversights. The initial information provided to people who are cited for violating Ferguson’s municipal code is often incomplete or inconsistent.”
In the interest of space, I’m forgoing the excerpts of personal anecdotes. But I recommend reading the report for those as well, to see how these actions affect the lives of the city’s residents. The crux of it is this: the city instructs the police to raise a certain amount of revenue. They do so by issuing various citations on skimpy or nonexistent evidence and which at times plainly violate Ferguson residents’ constitutional rights.
The municipal court then structures the payment procedure in a way that encourages additional violations. They put up obstacles to payment and don’t follow their own rules. For example, they leave the impression that in-person payment is required in far more cases than it actually is. They then close earlier than the posted closing time. It’s as if they don’t want to take your money–but that’s only because they want you to end up owing more, and then take that.
And why does the court do this? Jumping back earlier in the report, we learn that “Ferguson’s municipal court operates as part of the police department. The court is supervised by the Ferguson Chief of Police, is considered part of the police department for City organizational purposes, and is physically located within the police station. Court staff report directly to the Chief of Police.” Additionally, “the Court Clerk, who is employed under the Police Chief’s supervision, plays the most significant role in managing the court and exercises broad discretion in conducting the court’s daily operations.”
The game is rigged. And conservatives have a real opportunity to talk about why. This is the community-policing version of the regulatory state. There is a tendency among the right to counter attempts to gain sympathy for criminals by saying something like, “well don’t break the law.” And I suppose that’s true as far as it goes. But here’s the thing: it’s no longer so easy not to break the law, in all sorts of respects. And the proliferation of ticky-tack charges makes it that much easier to run afoul of the law.
Again, racism is certainly a part of this too in many cases. But the government exacerbates the problem by encouraging the police to see law-abiding citizens as potential piñatas. When you pass a law you put the state’s monopoly on the use of force behind it. And when you add a significant price tag to such arrests policing becomes like a video game. And when you bring the arms of municipal government under the unified command of the police, you remove the potential for necessary oversight.
The government has ballooned its own spending to the point where arresting citizens, and turning the innocent into criminals, has become a new form of stealth taxation. It’s dehumanizing, and limited-government conservatives are missing a real opportunity by not shouting it from the rooftops.