Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cash Cows A Go Go: How Municipalities Milk The Poor

Cash Cow. 
Noun: A business venture that generates 
a steady return of profits that far exceed the
 outlay of cash required to acquire or start it.

Whatever emerges from the grand jury's probing of 18-year-old Michael Brown's fatal shooting in Ferguson, MO, one reality seems clear enough. The result is unlikely to satisfy residents demanding a legal day of reckoning for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown -- nor those on the other side who defend his actions. 

Resident Jimmie Matthews expressed his feelings succinctly enough for Yahoo News: "Whatever outcome they have, we're going to be protesting.  Either way, the issues are the same. We feel that we are not protected by anyone in the system."  Although recent protests have passed without incident, one suspects that Governor Jay Nixon's call-out of the National Guard won't exactly ease Mr. Matthews's mood.

One aspect of the tragedy has drawn little attention, however.  Like many municipalities nationwide, Ferguson has cranked up its power to levy -- and collect -- citations, fines and penalties make life hellish for the low-income residents stuck paying them. Faced with shrinking state and federal revenues, cities large and small nationwide have embraced stiffer fines to avoid budget shortfalls. Better yet, citizens don't get to vote in such matters (unlike a millage proposal, for example, that may not pass muster at the ballot box).

As NBC's analysis suggests, Ferguson's newfound fining and ticketing fever has played out with predictably skewed results. You can read the entire story in its entirety below, but some figures are worth noting in greater detail. 

In fiscal year 2013, for example, Ferguson filed 11,400 traffic cases. According to NBC, that's nearly the same number issued in Chesterfield, a largely white city that's also twice the size of Ferguson's 21,000 residents. What's more, Ferguson filed more non-ordinance cases (12,300) -- which includes non-traffic violations like trespassing, loitering, and so on -- than any other city in St. Louis County.

As a result, Ferguson expected to rake in more than $2.6 million in fines and public safety revenues for the 2013 fiscal year, or 40 percent more than it did in 2010, NBC's reports. It's a fitting outcome in a city whose residents are 67 percent black, yet whites make up 50 of its 53-member police force, and five of its six city council members (including the mayor). Do we need to hire a rocket scientist to show where such polarization leads? 

Given the weight of all these statistics, it's hardly surprising that Thomas Harvey, executive director of a law firm representing low-income clients, tells NBC: "It's not just Ferguson, it's this whole region. My clients say that the police officer and the judge and the prosecutor are not on their side, and they are just viewed as a source of revenue."

Of course, Ferguson is hardly unique in imposing such policies. Reason magazine reports that the city of Los Angeles is rolling out a citation enforcement program that imposes fines of $100 to $1,000 for various petty offenses -- ranging from harboring an unlicensed dog, for example, to tampering with refuse. Again, it doesn't take a nuclear physicist to see how the latter example will instantly criminalize a street person caught rummaging in a dumpster for pop cans and other pieces of scrap metal to convert into instant cash.

According to Reason, the initiative is expected to generate $2.5 million in annual revenues for the City of Angels, which pioneered a unique brand of "Gotcha!" enforcement in 2006 -- when it implemented "countdown" lights downtown to catch people jaywalking. If you can't cross the intersection before that light goes off, it's worth $197 for the city's coffers.

As the old saying holds..."it's nice work, if you can get it." Of course, the consequences get more drastic if you don't pay those fines immediately. Suddenly, you're looking at late fees and penalties that mushroom into arrest warrants for failure to pay them, jeopardizing your ability (economically speaking) to make those problems go away. 

What's worse, many of these statutes are framed in opaque language that officers interpret as they see fit...which breeds a culture of intimidation and harassment on the street. Left unchecked, this phenomenon erodes community support for the police department, whose officers respond by adopting a battle-ready "us against them" mentality... which only raises the odds of further tragedies waiting to happen.

Backers of this "broken windows" approach -- which holds that a well-ordered environment is necessary to preserve public safety -- brush aside concerns about its potential abuses by treating them as the rants of disgruntled street misfits: "Why worry when you haven't done anything wrong?" 

Real life rarely plays out so simply, however. I found myself reminded of this principle after watching a show on PBS this week that examined New York City's controversial "stop and frisk" policy at length. What sticks with me is the bitterness -- raw, searing and visceral -- of residents who'd found themselves on the receiving end of such policies, often with little or no warning. They scarcely felt protected, let alone served.

Where abuse of power becomes its own reward, the moral fallout is all too evident. You can only subject people so long to an endless, perverse quest of how much pain and suffering they can stand. Sooner or later, the unwilling subjects will push back, often in ways that the local power structure might not endorse. In this tragic tapestry, Ferguson is the only latest unhappy snapshot. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Man, Don't Ever Get Yourself Busted For Jaywalking...) 
NBC News: Black St. Louis Suburbs Hit With Ticket Blitz:

Reason Magazine: Los Angeles Can't Fix Its Sidewalks
But Wants To Fine Its Citizens For Not Keeping Them Clean:

Reason Magazine: Petty Law Enforcement Vs. The Poor:

The New York Times: Author Of "Broken Windows" Policing Defends His Theory:

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