A horrible thing happened in Baton Rouge, La., on Tuesday. Then, unthinkably, it happened again in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday. Then, horrifically, five police officers were shot dead by snipers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas Thursday.
Many people are hurt, scared, and angry over the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But vitriol, hatred, and revenge will not solve the problem of police brutality in America. Instead, we must take a rational look at why these incidents keep happening; and, believe it or not, the disproportionate amount of police violence directed at black and poor people could be the result of a fiscal problem:
When you ask why such “bad” cops are nevertheless armed and allowed to patrol the streets, one begins to see that 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—redirecting the very concept of keeping the peace into underwriting the budget.
We saw a glimpse of this when the Justice Department released its report on Ferguson in March. In his statement, then-Attorney General Eric Holder referenced a lady in town whose life sounded Walter Scott-like. She had received two parking tickets totaling $151. Her efforts to pay those fines fell so behind that she eventually paid out more than $500. At one point, she was jailed for nonpayment and—eight years later—still owes $541 in accrued fees.
The judge largely responsible for the extraction of these fees from Ferguson’s poor, Ronald J. Brockmeyer, owed $172,646 in back taxes, a sum orders of magnitude greater than any late fine coming before his bench. Even as he was jailing black ladies for parking tickets, Brockmeyer was allegedly erasing citations for white Ferguson residents who happened to be his friends. After the report’s publication, he resigned so that Ferguson could “begin its healing process.”
But consider: In 2010, this collaboration between the Ferguson police and the courts generated $1.4 million in income for the city. This year, they will more than double that amount—$3.1 million—providing nearly a quarter of the city’s $13 million budget, almost all of it extracted from its poorest African American citizens.
As William Maurer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, explains,”Essentially, these small towns in urban areas have municipal infrastructure that can’t be supported by the tax base, and so they ticket everything in sight to keep the town functioning.” And the issue extends far beyond Missouri:
South Carolina hosts “Operation Rolling Thunder,” an annual dragnet in which 21 different law enforcement agencies swarm stretches of I-85 and I-26 in the name of catching drug dealers. In 2013, this law enforcement Bonnaroo netted 1,300 traffic citations and 300 speeding tickets. But after everyone had paid up, the operation boasted exactly one felony conviction.
A different strategy in San Diego simply tacks on various fees to an existing fine. A 2012 Union Tribune investigation revealed that while speeding is a simple $35 fine, other government agencies can tack on as many as 10 other surcharges, including: a state penalty assessment, $40; county penalty assessment, $36; court construction, $20; state surcharge, $8; DNA identification, $16; criminal conviction fee, $35; court operations, $40; emergency medical air transportation penalty, $4; and night court, $1. When it’s all said and done, that $35 ticket comes to $235.
Another report released earlier this year connects the dots: African Americans and Latinos make up less than a third of San Diego’s population but represent 64.5 percent of those searched during a traffic stop.
Police are fining everything they can in order to fund their own salaries; and if you’re wondering why the “bad apple” cops aren’t just fired, that’s a different problem entirely:
Please don’t mistake anything in this post as an indictment of all cops. Not all cops are “bad apples”; on the contrary, the majority are good. But across the country, the mission of many police forces has unfortunately shifted from “protect and serve” to “punish and profit” — and until that’s fixed, these shootings won’t stop.