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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

“Racism; It’s The Law”: What Institutional Racism Looks Like When We Finally Notice It

Smoke and fire, sirens blaring, horns honking, a sudden hail of bullets. This is what passes for the American dialogue on race and justice.

It’s hidden until it explodes.

“By 10 p.m.,” the Wall Street Journal informed us, “a St. Louis County Police squad car burned just down the street from the Ferguson Police Department, with spare ammunition ‘cooking off’ or exploding in the car.”

Those who want to shake their heads in disgust can do so. American institutional racism conceals itself so neatly from those who prefer not to see it and, of course, aren’t victimized by it. And then every so often something sets off the public trigger — an 18-year-old young man is shot and killed by a police officer, for instance — and the reality TV that is our mainstream news brings us the angry, “violent” response, live. And it’s always one side against another; us vs. them. It’s always war.

“But what is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies?” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation the day after the grand jury announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted. “That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.”

What is justice, indeed? And beyond that question are the real questions, perhaps unanswerable. What is healing? What is peace?

If an officer had been indicted in Michael Brown’s killing, and then convicted on one charge or another, maybe that would have been justice, in a “case closed” sort of way. In our limited legal bureaucracy, justice means nothing more than punishment. Even when such justice is done, it changes nothing. The state’s “interest” has been satisfied and that’s all that matters. The terrible loss suffered by parents, friends and community would remain a gaping wound. And beyond that, the social brokenness and racism that caused the tragedy in the first place would remain unaddressed, unhealed.

But not even that minimal justice was in the cards for the loved ones of Michael Brown, or the occupied community in which he lived — because that’s not how it works. Officer Wilson, whatever he did inside or outside the state’s rules on the use of lethal force when he confronted Brown on the afternoon of Aug. 9, was just doing his job, which was controlling and intimidating the black population of Ferguson. He was on the front line of a racist and exploitative system — an occupying bureaucracy.

The New York Times, in its story about the grand jury verdict, began thus: “Michael Brown became so angry when he was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive here on Aug. 9, his face looked ‘like a demon,’ the officer would later tell a grand jury.”

This sort of detail is, of course, of immense value to those who sympathize with the police shooting and accuse the black community of endemic lawlessness. See! Michael Brown wasn’t just a nice, innocent boy minding his own business. He and his companion were trouble incarnate, walking down the middle of the street spoiling for a fight. He was Hulk Hogan. The cop had no choice but to shoot, and shoot again. This was a demonic confrontation. Politeness wouldn’t have worked.

If nothing else, such testimony shows the stark limits of our “who’s at fault?” legal system, which addresses every incident in pristine, absurd isolation and has no interest beyond establishing blame — that is to say, officially stamping the participants as either villains, heroes or victims. Certainly it has no interest in holistic understanding of social problems.

Taking Wilson’s testimony at face value, one could choose to ask: Why was Michael Brown so angry?

Many commentators have talked about the “anger” of Ferguson’s black community in the wake of the shooting, but there hasn’t been much examination of the anger that was simmering beforehand, which may have seized hold of Brown the instant the police officer stopped him.

However, an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Radley Balko of the Washington Post, which ran in September — “How municipalities in St. Louis County, MO, profit from poverty” — addresses the issue head on. He makes the point that local municipal governments, through an endless array of penny-ante citations and fines — “poverty violations” — torment the locals for the primary, or perhaps sole, purpose of keeping their bureaucracies funded.

“Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts,” Balko writes. The fines are mostly for traffic offenses, but they also include fines for loud music, unmown lawns, “wearing saggy pants” and “vague infractions such as ‘disturbing the peace,’” among many others, and if the person fined, because he or she is poor, can’t pay up, a further fine is added to the original, and on and on it goes.

“There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe,” Balko writes. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment, you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.”

Regarding the anger and resentment in communities like Ferguson, he quotes a longtime racial justice activist, Jack Kirkland, who says: “I liken it to a flow of hot magma just below the surface. It’s always there, building, pushing up against the earth. It’s just a matter of time. When it finds a weak point, it’s going to blow.”

And when it blows, we get to watch it on TV: the flames, the smoke, the rage, the ammo “cooking off.” This is what institutional racism looks like when we finally notice it.

 

By: Robert Koehler, Award-Winning, Chicago-Based Journalist and Nationally Syndicated Writer; The National Memo, December 29, 2014

December 31, 2014 Posted by | Police Brutality, Racism, White Supremacy | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“When The Action Ends, The Cameras Will Depart”: In Ferguson, As Elsewhere, Voting Is What Matters

In covering the violence engulfing Ferguson, Missouri, media routinely cite the following numbers to explain the frustration of the minority community there:

Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, yet the mayor, five of the six City Council members and nearly the entire police force are white.

But there are other numbers. In the municipal election held last year, 52 percent of the voters were white — in a city, to repeat, that is 67 percent black.

The first set of numbers is related to the second.

Clearly, what we are calling a minority population is a majority. If most of Ferguson’s eligible African-American voters feel that the city government treats them unfairly, they have a simple remedy: They can elect a different city government.

Black city leaders have made this case, but their message has been lost in the drama of downtown burning and looting. Chaos afflicted this city in August after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American. Chaos has descended again after a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved.

In between was a midterm election, in which only 42 percent of registered Ferguson voters turned out to cast ballots for the powerful office of St. Louis County executive. This participation was actually 10 percentage points below that of the previous midterm in 2010.

In the midterm elections nationally, blacks, Latinos, young people, single women and other generally progressive voting groups failed to show up in large numbers. Older white people did.

Of course, calls for civic participation are hard pressed to compete for attention with the world’s news cameras looking for excitement. The Ferguson rioters — a crowd no doubt swelled by opportunists of all variety — are not leaving much to save. When the action ends, the cameras will depart.

The purpose here is not to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. There were highly conflicting witness reports of what happened.

Nor is the purpose to advocate voting along racial (or ethnic) lines. Voters will ideally cast their ballots for candidates deemed most capable of serving their needs.

Nor must a police force perfectly reflect the racial makeup of a population, though, it must be said, Ferguson’s imbalance seems extreme. But again, Ferguson’s black community can change this situation by electing officials sensitive to their concerns.

It’s true that Ferguson’s municipal elections schedule doesn’t encourage turnout. These elections take place in April, far from the traditional voting day in November. They also occur in non-presidential years, when turnout by minorities and young people traditionally drops. In the most recent municipal election, only 12 percent of registered voters — white, black or otherwise — cast ballots. Voters can change those dates.

This poor showing frustrates civic-minded African-Americans advocating change in a normal, nondestructive way.

“Every time there’s an election, we have to show up,” Patricia Bynes, a local black Democratic official, told Reuters. “I don’t care if we are voting what color the trash cans are. We need to show up.”

At Brown’s funeral, a family member called on mourners to make themselves heard at the polls. But only 204 residents of Ferguson registered to vote from the time of the fatal shooting to the Oct. 8 registration deadline for voting this year — only 204 in a city of 21,000 people.

And as pollsters keep reminding us, what determines the end result isn’t how many people register to vote. It’s how many registered voters actually come to the polls on Election Day.

This can’t be said often enough. The power that matters in Ferguson — and everywhere else — is exercised in the voting booth.

 

By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, November 27, 2014

November 28, 2014 Posted by | Elections, Ferguson Missouri, Local Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Racism: It’s The Law”: American Institutional Racism Conceals Itself From Those Who Prefer Not To See It And Aren’t Victimized By It

Smoke and fire, sirens blaring, horns honking, a sudden hail of bullets. This is what passes for the American dialogue on race and justice.

It’s hidden until it explodes.

“By 10 p.m., a St. Louis County Police squad car burned just down the street from the Ferguson Police Department, with spare ammunition ‘cooking off’ or exploding in the car,” the Wall Street Journal informed us.

Those who want to shake their heads in disgust can do so. American institutional racism conceals itself so neatly from those who prefer not to see it and, of course, aren’t victimized by it. And then every so often something sets off the public trigger — an 18-year-old young man is shot and killed by a police officer, for instance — and the reality TV that is our mainstream news brings us the angry, “violent” response, live. And it’s always one side against another, us vs. them. It’s always war.

“But what is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies?” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation the day after the grand jury announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted. “That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.”

What is justice, indeed? And beyond that question are the real questions, perhaps unanswerable. What is healing? What is peace?

If the officer had been indicted for Michael Brown’s killing and then convicted on one charge or another, maybe that would have been justice, in a “case closed” sort of way. In our limited legal bureaucracy, “justice” means nothing more than punishment. Even when such justice is done, it changes nothing. The state’s “interest” has been satisfied, and that’s all that matters. The terrible loss suffered by parents, friends and community would remain a gaping wound. And beyond that, the social brokenness and racism that caused the tragedy in the first place would remain unaddressed, unhealed.

But not even that minimal justice was in the cards for the loved ones of Michael Brown or the occupied community in which he lived — because that’s not how it works. Officer Wilson, whatever he did inside or outside the state’s rules on the use of lethal force when he confronted Brown on the afternoon of Aug. 9, was just doing his job, which was controlling and intimidating the black population of Ferguson. He was on the front line of a racist and exploitative system — an occupying bureaucracy.

The New York Times, in its story about the grand jury’s decision, began thus: “Michael Brown became so angry when he was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive here on Aug. 9, his face looked ‘like a demon,’ the officer would later tell a grand jury.”

This sort of detail is, of course, of immense value to those who sympathize with the police shooting and accuse the black community of endemic lawlessness. See! Michael Brown wasn’t just a nice, innocent boy minding his own business. He and his companion were trouble incarnate, walking down the middle of the street spoiling for a fight. He was Hulk Hogan. The cop had no choice but to shoot, and shoot again. This was a demonic confrontation. Politeness wouldn’t have worked.

If nothing else, such testimony shows the stark limits of our “who’s at fault?” legal system, which addresses every incident in pristine, absurd isolation and has no interest beyond establishing blame — that is to say, officially stamping the participants as either villains, heroes or victims. Certainly it has no interest in holistic understanding of social problems.

Taking Wilson’s testimony at face value, one could choose to ask: Why was Michael Brown so angry?

Many commentators have talked about the “anger” of Ferguson’s black community in the wake of the shooting, but there hasn’t been much examination of the anger that was simmering beforehand, which may have seized hold of Brown the instant the police officer stopped him.

However, an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Radley Balko of the Washington Post, “How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty,” which ran in September, addresses the issue head-on. He makes the point that local municipal governments, through an endless array of penny-ante citations and fines — “poverty violations” — torment the locals for the primary, or perhaps sole, purpose of keeping their bureaucracies funded.

“Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts,” Balko writes. The fines are mostly for traffic offenses, but they also include fines for loud music, unmown lawns, “wearing saggy pants” and “vague infractions such as ‘disturbing the peace,'” among many others, and if the person fined, because he or she is poor, can’t pay up, a further fine is added to the original, and on and on it goes.

“There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe,” Balko writes. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment, you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.”

Regarding the anger and resentment in communities like Ferguson, he quotes a longtime racial justice activist, Jack Kirkland, who says, “I liken it to a flow of hot magma just below the surface. It’s always there, building, pushing up against the earth. It’s just a matter of time. When it finds a weak point, it’s going to blow.”

And when it blows, we get to watch it on TV: the flames, the smoke, the rage, the ammo “cooking off.” This is what institutional racism looks like when we finally notice it.

 

By: Robert Koehler, Syndicated Columnist; The Huffington Post Blog, November 27, 2014

November 28, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Ferguson Missouri, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“How Darren Wilson Saw Michael Brown In Ferguson”: “Like It Was ‘Making Him Mad’ That I’m Shooting At Him”

After announcing that Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown this summer, would not be indicted, Ferguson officials made available Mr. Wilson’s testimony. Here’s how he described shooting the unarmed teenager.

“As he is coming towards me, I tell, keep telling him to get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.”

(Ed. note, he fired twelve shots total at Mr. Brown over the course of the incident.)

“I know I missed a couple, I don’t know how many, but I know I hit him at least once because I saw his body kind of jerk.”

He continued: “At this point I start backpedaling and again, I tell him get on the ground, get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot another round of shots. Again, I don’t recall how many [hit] him every time. I know at least once because he flinched again. At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” (Emphasis mine.)

This description sounds like it was lifted from a comic book. Mr. Brown “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots”?  That’s what happens when The Hulk faces a spray of bullets; not what happens when a human does. (On the other hand, it’s totally believable that Mr. Brown was “mad” at Mr. Wilson for shooting at him.)

Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Brown was 6-foot-4 and weighed roughly 290 pounds. Mr. Wilson, though, is not a small guy: He’s also 6-foot-4, and about 210 pounds.

But let’s give the officer the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he was so genuinely scared that his fear distorted what was happening. Whether or not he committed a crime, as defined by a criminal justice system that tends to let cops off the hook, he shouldn’t be carrying a gun. Someone who can let fear get the better of him—who sees a teenager like a super-villain—shouldn’t have easy access to deadly force.

 

By: Juliet Lapidos, The Editorial Page Editors Blog, The New York Times, November 25, 2014

November 27, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , | 1 Comment

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