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“Balancing The Budget”: How Ferguson, Missouri, Uses Cops And The Courts To Prey On Its Residents

More than seven years ago, a black woman parked her car illegally in Ferguson, Missouri. She received two tickets and a $151 fine. The woman, sometimes homeless, struggled to pay it off, and over the next several years she was slapped with seven “Failure to Appear” citations for missing payments and court dates. Each of those citations added to the debt she owed the city and resulted in an arrest warrant. By 2014, she’d been arrested twice, spent nearly a week in jail, and had paid the city $550. As of December, she still owed $541.

“Inexplicable,” is how Attorney General Eric Holder summed up her story at a press conference on Wednesday, at which he unveiled the Department of Justice’s long-anticipated report on the Ferguson police department and municipal court. The report affirms what residents have long said: that officers routinely profile citizens based on their race and violate their constitutional rights. Critically, the report addresses the roots of the police force’s discriminatory practices. Not simply the fault of racist cops, the DoJ asserts, they stem from the way the city preys on residents financially, relying on the fines that accompany even minor offenses to balance its budget.

The report traces the pattern of racial bias from traffic stops to arrests to the courtroom and, finally, to a cycle of incarceration and indebtedness. Black residents make up about 67 percent of the Ferguson population. According to the DoJ, they experienced 85 percent of all traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 88 percent of incidents in which an officer used force, and 93 percent of all arrests. They received almost all of the citations for petty crimes like jaywalking. Black drivers were twice as likely to have their cars searched as whites, yet significantly less likely to actually have drugs or other contraband. Of the people who spent two or more days in the city jail, 95 percent were black.

Overt, grotesque racism among city officials underlies these statistics. The report includes a handful of e-mails between police and municipal court officials that contain derogatory language, such as a November 2008 message stating that President Obama would not be in office long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another, from 2011, contained a photo of a group of women dancing topless and “apparently in Africa” with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”

But a subtler, systemic pressure also encourages over-policing in Ferguson: the way that the city relies on the fines levied on violators to fund itself. “Officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” states the report. This year the city expects to raise $3.09 million of projected $13.26 million in revenue from fines and fees, which it levies wherever possible. An unmowed lawn, for instance, costs Ferguson residents between $77 and $102, though in some other cities it’s a $5 offense.

Not surprisingly, DoJ found that the city “exhorts” police to maximize revenue via stops, citations, and arrests, and in some cases punishes them for failing to meet targets. In 2010, for example, Ferguson’s finance director wrote to the police chief that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year…. it’s not an insignificant issue.” Each unpaid fine generates other fees and often arrest warrants; in effect, it is poverty that’s punished.

Hunger for revenue influences how officers act, resulting in excessive uses of force—with Tasers and dogs—,violations of free speech and unreasonable stops or arrests, according to the DoJ. It has also made the police a “collection agency” for the municipal court, and in turn transformed the courtroom into a shakedown site, where the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment are abandoned, particularly in cases involving black residents. The court “primarily” uses its authority to “advance the City’s financial interest,” not to advance justice, the DoJ found. The police, meanwhile, use arrest warrants not to protect public safety but as the primary means of collecting outstanding fines.

None of this is particularly surprising to people who’ve come into contact with the criminal-justice system in the St. Louis region. “Municipal courts in this area have always been revenue producers,” said Brendan Roediger, who directs a legal clinic at the St. Louis University School of Law. “It means that bad policing pays off.” Most of the roughly ninety municipalities in St. Louis County have their own courts, which operate part-time and, Roediger says, function much like Ferguson’s: for the purpose of balancing budgets. The town of St Ann, just a few miles east of Ferguson, lost its shopping mall in 2010, and the associated tax dollars. Since then revenue from citations has shot up, from $500,000 to $3.5 million from traffic tickets and fines alone, according to one estimate.

According to Radley Balko of The Washington Post, some towns in St. Louis County collect 40 percent or more of their revenue from fines levied by their municipal courts for petty violations. The town of Bel-Ridge (population 2,700, and more than 80 percent black), for example, was projected to collect an average of $450 per household in municipal court fines in 2014, making those fees its largest source of revenue. That money gets pumped right back into the system; $25,000 goes to the prosecuting attorney for the twelve hours they spend in court each month.

“One of the big fears I have about the DoJ’s report is that it’s going to isolate Ferguson, just because that’s what their purview was, but it’s going to ignore the fact that this is going on in ninety other towns in our region, and in many states in America,” said Thomas Harvey, executive director of the legal aid group Arch City Defenders. “This cycle of being stopped, ticketed, fined and jailed is so pervasive for black people in our region that many folks can’t tell you how many times they’ve been jailed on unpaid fines.” He continued, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that people are literally held in these jails and extorted for monetary payments on a daily basis until they’ve tapped out their friends, their families, everything they’ve got in order to get out.”

Harvey and Roediger think the municipal courts should be dissolved, and the cases turned over to circuit courts. The long list of recommendations for reforms included in the DoJ’s report do not go that far, although the agency did suggest that city reduce fines, develop alternative payment plans, and stop jailing people for failing to pay fines, among other things.

“Nothing is off the table,” Holder warned Ferguson officials during the press conference, noting that although the recommendations are voluntary, his department reserves the right to intervene to protect the constitutional rights of Ferguson’s residents. He nodded to the wider geography of the issue, saying that the DoJ would also work with “surrounding municipalities” to reform their law enforcement practices. It’s “the underlying culture” of the police department and the court system that need to change, he said. As the DoJ’s report shows, the underlying economics need changing, too.

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, March 4, 2015

March 7, 2015 Posted by | DOJ, Ferguson Missouri, Police Abuse | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Understanding Eric Holder’s Tearful Resignation”: “Humbled By His Role In This Nation’s History

President Obama’s announcement of the resignation of Eric H. Holder Jr. as U.S. attorney general was a deeply personal event. The nation’s first African American president was bidding adieu to the man he elevated as the nation’s first black chief law enforcement officer. And if you didn’t know it before yesterday, you certainly know now that the men and their families are close friends. You not only saw the bittersweet emotions of both the president and his attorney general, but you also felt them.

The extraordinary moment at the White House yesterday took me back to a moment I experienced with Holder last year. The image of this attorney general is one of forceful and unwavering resolve in the face of persistent and withering Republican criticism and even an unprecedented congressional vote of contempt against him in 2012. But on this particular day in his office, I observed that the emotions the nation saw yesterday lingered just below the surface. Within an hour of our meeting, I raced to a nearby restaurant to write down what happened. The moment was too powerful to me to entrust to memory.

Holder gave me a tour of his very lived-in office. Memorabilia everywhere. Lots of pictures. One of him at Normandy taken by his former communications director, Tracy Schmaler, he said, was his favorite. There is also a picture of himself with his favorite basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And there’s a photo of his three favorite boxers, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and the other escapes me at the moment.

But there was a series of four photos that caught my attention at his door. It was Holder interacting with a little boy. In one photo, Holder is seen kissing the crying boy on the head. It was from a Drug Enforcement [Administration] memorial event in May 2009, he told me.

As Holder talked about what was happening in the photos, his voice cracked. The family [two boys and their mom] was having a hard time with the loss of their father and her husband. The young son was too young to comprehend what was going on. But, Holder said, the other one was a little bit older and understood the gravity of losing his father.

Holder paused several times recounting that story. Tears were visible in his eyes as we stood side by side. He was able to regain his composure. But when his press secretary Adora Jenkins asked him what he told the little boy, the halting voice and tears reappeared. He said he told the little boy that his father was a hero and that everything would eventually be okay.

After all that Holder has been through, that he is so easily moved by something that happened [then-]three years earlier was telling. As with many things in his office, those photos are a reminder of why he’s in the job he’s in.

Holder loves his job. He takes his duties and responsibilities seriously. He revels in as much as he is humbled by his role in this nation’s history and efforts to have our nation be true to its ideals. And we saw it all in high relief at the White House yesterday.

 

By: Jonathan Capehart, PostPartisan Blog, The Washington Post, September 26, 2014

September 27, 2014 Posted by | DOJ, Eric Holder | , , , , , | Leave a comment

United Nations Sharply Critical Of U.S. On Women’s Rights

The United Nations Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, has issued a very critical report of the U.S. on its policies on women’s rights. The report is based on a trip of the Special Rapporteur to the US from 24 January to 7 February 2011. During that trip, Ms. Rashida Manjoo broadly examined issues of violence against women in different settings. Her recommendations should provide fruitful material for the U.S. to improve its policies towards women.

As indicated in the report, “Violence against women occurs along a continuum in which the various forms of violence are often both causes and consequences of violence.” Domestic violence or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is one of the most critical expressions of violence. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) 552,000 violent crimes by an intimate partner were committed against women in the U.S. in 2008.

Their husbands or intimate acquaintances are responsible for the majority of crimes against women. The Violence Policy Center states that the number of women shot and killed by their husbands or intimate acquaintances was four times higher than the total number of women murdered by male strangers using all weapons combined, according to an analysis of 2008 data.

Rape and sexual assault continue to be prevalent forms of violence against women in the country. According to the NCVS, 182,000 women were raped or sexually assaulted in the U.S. in 2008, i.e. approximately 500 women per day. In addition, there were 3.4 million persons who were victims of stalking, most of them women. 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men have been stalked in their lifetime in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year. $4.1 billion of that amount is for direct medical and mental health services. Intimate partner violence incidents result in more than 18.5 million mental health care visits each year.

Children are also victims of violence carried out against their mothers. It has been shown that 30% to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household. Witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior among generations. In that regard, it has been shown that boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

Domestic violence offenses are one of the most chronically underreported crimes. It is estimated that only approximately one-quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes, and one-half of all stalkings carried out against females by intimate partners are reported to the police.

There are several reasons for these crimes not being reported. Among those reasons are: fear of retaliation from their abuser, the perception that the police will not respond adequately to the complaint or the belief that these are issues that should be privately addressed. According to a 2009 Department of Justice report, only 56% of intimate partner violence cases filed with the courts resulted in a conviction.

Women victims of domestic violence suffer a wide array of negative consequences, aside from the physical and psychological. Women victims of domestic violence face serious consequences in terms of economic instability, loss of employment and homelessness. In addition, violence against women is frequently seen among women in the military, women in detention, and among immigrant and undocumented women.

The extent of the phenomenon has made that violence against women is now recognized as an issue that belongs not only to the private sphere but that requires State intervention. According to the U.N. Rapporteur, the U.S. Government has taken positive legislative and policy initiatives to reduce the prevalence of violence against women.

Among those steps is the enactment and subsequent reauthorizations of the Violence against Women Act, as well as the establishment of dedicated offices on violence against women at the highest levels of government. However, according to the UN Rapporteur, more U.S. government actions are needed to curb a phenomenon that continues to cause tremendous harm to women’s health and quality of life.

 

By: Cesar Chelala, MD, PhD, CommonDreams.org, June 4, 2011

June 4, 2011 Posted by | DOJ, Economy, Education, Equal Rights, Government, Governors, Health Care, Human Rights, Planned Parenthood, Public Health, State Legislatures, States, Women, Women's Health, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Senate Report: Sen. Tom Coburn Actively Negotiated Multi-Million Dollar Hush Money Package For Ensign’s Mistress

After a 22-month investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee released a report on the conduct of Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), who resigned early this month. The report contains voluminous evidence suggesting Ensign may have violated several laws in an effort to cover up an affair with a member of his staff. The committee has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.

Contained in the 67-page report, however, is troubling evidence of the central role that current Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) played in trying to keep Ensign’s mistress and her husband quiet — evidence that contradicts Coburn’s previous public statements on the matter.

In July 2009, Coburn said he was consulting with Ensign “as a physician and as an ordained deacon” and he considered it a “privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody.” Asked about the claim from Doug Hampton, the husband of Ensign’s mistress, that he “urged Ensign to pay the Hamptons millions of dollars,” Coburn said, “I categorically deny everything he said.”

Coburn was similarly blunt in a November 22, 2009 interview with George Stephanopoulos:

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told me flatly that he did not offer to broker a million-dollar deal between his Senate colleague, John Ensign, R-Nev., and the family of Ensign’s mistress.

Doug Hampton, the husband of a staffer with whom Ensign had an affair, makes the explosive allegation in an interview with “Nightline’s” Cynthia McFadden that will air on Monday.

…When I asked Coburn on This Week if Hampton is telling the truth, he said, “There was no negotiation,” but acknowledged that he had worked to “bring two families to a closure of a very painful episode.”

Coburn eventually agreed to cooperate with the Ethics Committee; their findings on the level of his involvement are startling. According to the committees report, Coburn actively assisted in the discussions of a hush money package, negotiating a proposed package from $8 million down to $2.8 million. The ethics committee report, on pages 37 to 38, describes the negotiation between Mr. Albregts, an attorney for the husband of Ensign’s mistress, and Sen. Coburn:

Mr. Albregts tried to get a ballpark estimate from Senator Coburn as to the amount he would be comfortable with. Mr. Albregts proposed $8 million based on a document Doug Hampton prepared. According to Mr. Albregts, Senator Coburn said that the figure was absolutely ridiculous. Senator Coburn then stated that the Ensigns should buy the Hamptons home because it is so close to the Ensigns, and the Hamptons should receive an amount of money above and beyond that to start over, buy a new home, have some living money while they were looking for new employment, and possibly some seed money to send the children off to college. Senator Coburn stated that that’s what I’ve thought from day one would be fair, but said that $8 million was nowhere close to a reasonable figure. Senator Coburn told Mr. Albregts to figure out what those amounts would be, and call him back.

Mr. Albregts then spoke with Mr. Hampton, and asked him how much it would cost to get the house paid for, and how much he needed above that figure to get started somewhere new. Mr. Hampton then came back with some figures, and estimated $1.2 million for the home, and another $1.6 million to get started somewhere new. Mr. Albregts called Senator Coburn back for the final time with this revised figure on the same day in a five-minute call. Per Mr. Albregts, Senator Coburn responded by stating that okay, that’s what I had in mind and I think is fair and said he would take the figure to the Ensigns.

The Ensigns rejected the new offer. Previous reports referenced Coburn’s role as a go-between but did not reveal the extent of his inovlement in the negotations. The report notes that “Mr. Albregts testified that Senator Coburn took an active role in the negotiations between Mr. Hampton and Senator Ensign, and this role included proposing specific resolutions.” Coburn told the committee that he was “simply going to pass information” to Ensign.

One thing is certain: Tom Coburn has a lot of explaining to do.

By: Judd Legum, Think Progress, May 12, 2011

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, DOJ, GOP, Politics, Republicans, Senate | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Donald Trump’s Not So Great Relationship With “The Blacks”

In an episode early in Donald Trump’s career, his New York real estate company was sued by the federal government for discriminating against potential black renters. After a lengthy legal battle, it ultimately agreed to wide-ranging steps to offer rentals to nonwhites.

The little-remembered case provides crucial context for the current discussion centering on Trump and race. The celebrity businessman made news last month when he declared, “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”

He has recently come under fire for attacks on President Obama that critics have described as racially tinged. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, for example, said Wednesday there is  “an ugly strain of racism” in Trump’s recent (baseless) accusations that President Obama should not have been admitted to Columbia. Also yesterday, Trump told a black reporter, unprompted, “Look I know you are a big Obama fan.”

The discrimination case began in the earliest days of Trump’s career, when he was still in his 20s.

Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was, unlike his son, a self-made man. He made his fortune by building thousands of units of middle-class housing in Brooklyn and Queens. But in the early 1970s, Donald was made president of the family company.

One of Donald’s first challenges came in October 1973, when the Justice Department hit the Trump Organization with a major discrimination suit for violating the Fair Housing Act. The Times reported:

… the Government contended that Trump Management had refused to rent or negotiate rentals “because of race and color.” It also charged that the company had required different rental terms and conditions because of race and that it had misrepresented to blacks that apartments were not available.

The journalist Gwenda Blair reported in her 2005 Trump biography that while Fred Trump had sought to combat previous discrimination allegations through “quiet diplomacy,” Donald decided to go on the offensive. He hired his friend Roy Cohn, the celebrity lawyer and former Joseph McCarthy aide, to countersue the government for making baseless charges against the company. They sought a staggering $100 million in damages.

A few months after the government filed the suit, Trump gave a combative press conference at the New York Hilton in which he went after the Justice Department for being too friendly to welfare recipients. He “accused the Justice Department of singling out his corporation because it was a large one and because the Government was trying to force it to rent to welfare recipients,” the Times reported. Trump added that if welfare recipients were allowed into his apartments in certain middle-class outer-borough neighborhoods, there would be a “massive fleeing from the city of not only our tenants, but communities as a whole.”

A federal judge threw out Trump’s countersuit a month later, calling it a waste of “time and paper.”

Writes Blair in her book:

Donald testified repeatedly that he had nothing to do with renting apartments, although in an application for a broker’s license filed at the same time he said that he was in charge of all rentals.

In 1975, Trump ultimately came to a far-reaching agreement with the DOJ in which he and the company did not admit guilt but agreed not to discriminate and to take steps to open its housing stock to more nonwhites. The company agreed to submit a weekly list of vacancies to the Urban League, which would produce qualified applicants for a portion of all vacancies.

But it didn’t end there. In 1978, the government filed a motion for supplemental relief, charging that the Trump company had not complied with the 1975 agreement. The government alleged that the Trump company “discriminated against blacks in the terms and conditions of rental, made statements indicating discrimination based on race and told blacks that apartments were not available for inspection and rental when, in fact, they are,” the Times reported. Trump again denied the charges.

It’s not clear what happened with the government’s request for further action (and compensation for victims), but in 1983, a fair-housing activist cited statistics that two Trump Village developments had white majorities of at least 95 percent.

At the very least, the case is something for reporters to ask about next time Trump touts his “great relationship with the blacks.”

By: Justin Elliott, Salon War Room, April 28, 2011

April 28, 2011 Posted by | Bigotry, Birthers, Class Warfare, DOJ, Donald Trump, Government, Middle Class, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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