You are probably aware that the Department of Justice issued a scathing report about the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department’s penchant for citing and arresting people for minor crimes – walking in the middle of the roadway or failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign – and basically accused the city of using the Police Department as a collection agency to fill the city’s revenue coffers.  Yes.  Judging from the report, it looks like Ferguson’s finest have replaced their serve and protect duties with fine and collect duties. 

Now you might think that the Ferguson Police Department acting like a tax collection agency is unusual in the annals of present-day “community policing” around the country.  But you would be wrong.  Very, very wrong. 

A recent Mother Jones article about this phenomenon cites the following disturbing cases:

- The reason Charleston, South Carolina’s Walter Scott “ran” from police officer Michael Slager who shot him ten times in the back, wasn’t because of the broken taillight (that’s not a crime in SC) but because he knew that he would get arrested again for unpaid child support having been jailed and lost his low paying jobs as a result several times in the past.

- In Ferguson, the collaboration between the police and the court systems resulted in the collection of $3.1 million in fines last year, almost 25% of its entire budget, and nearly all of this sum from poor, African American citizens. 

- In San Diego, a $35 fine for speeding is subject to ten other “surcharges” from the city, county and state that can bring the fine up to $235.

- One Ferguson Black woman with two tickets totaling $151 fell behind on her payments and she eventually paid out more than $500.  At one point she was jailed for nonpayment and now, eight years later, she still owes the city $541 in accrued fees.

And here’s a partial list of “violations” the residents of Pagedale, a St. Louis suburb, must obey or possibly get fined:

            Fences/hedges no higher than 3 feet
            No wading pools or basketball hoops in front of your house
            No dish antennas in front of your house
            No walking in the roadway if there is a sidewalk
            Must walk on left side of roadway if there is no sidewalk
            Pedestrians must walk on the right in a crosswalk
            No barbecues in front yard
            No alcoholic beverages within 150 feet of a barbecue
            No kids playing in the street
            At night cars must be parked within 500 of a source of illumination
            Blinds must be hung in respectable appearance, properly maintained and in good repair.

WTF?  Yeah, right.  And how did this ridiculousness come about?  In 2010 Missouri passed a law capping the amount that could be collected from traffic stops, historically the old “speed-trap” tactic many states use to raise money.  (Ludowici and Jessup, two small towns in Georgia, used to be highlighted as speed traps on the American Automobile Association's TripTiks.) Thus the plethora of new regulations in Pagedale where non-traffic related arrests increased 495%.  Gotta get that money somehow, right?

As one Alabama Judge put it: “Having taxpayers foot a bill of $4,000 to incarcerate a man who owes $745 or a woman who owes a predatory lender $425 and removing them from the job force makes no sense in no reasonable world.”  He'll get no argument from me over his off the cuff economic analysis.  

And yet the example of the Alabama happens every day around the country.  This situation is largely the result of the last three decades of the conservative NO TAX INCREASES “public policy” that has swept the country.   Folks get really pissed when some local or national politician proposes a tax increase, so states and municipalities raise “fees” instead and no one, or rarely anyone, complains.  But what folks don’t seem to realize is that this scam is simply a tax increase masquerading as something else. 

In Ferguson, as in Pagedale, walking in the middle of the street is illegal according to section 44-344 of the city’s code, the violation that Michael Brown was allegedly stopped for.  Between 2011 and 2013, 95% of folks arrested for this heinous crime were Black, thus supporting the reality that Black people know all to well:  “Arrested for walking while Black.” 

And as the Mother Jones article points out, this situation is not limited to a few jurisdictions in Missouri, but is endemic across the country.  Police Departments everywhere are using the justice system not to mete out justice but to collect money for their municipalities to pay their bills. 

So when your local police department shifts from “Serve and Protect” to “Stop and Collect” is it any wonder why police officers are not trusted? 

Do you find this chart disturbing? 


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