The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ferguson shows how a police force can turn into a plundering ‘collection agency’

A man protests the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year. (Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images)

Of all the harrowing stories buried inside the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson Police Department, one of the most illustrative begins with an illegally parked car. The year was 2007. And a Ferguson officer who noticed the illegally parked vehicle issued its driver, an African American woman, two citations and a ticket for $151.

To the driver, who had bounced in and out of homelessness, the fine was draconian. She couldn’t pay it in full. So over the next seven years, the woman missed several deadlines and court dates. That tacked on more fees, more payment deadlines, more charges. She ultimately spent six days in jail. All because she didn’t park her car correctly. As of December 2014, the woman had paid the city of Ferguson $550 resulting from a $151 ticket. And she still owes $541.

The Justice Department cleared officer Darren Wilson in a Ferguson, Mo., civil rights probe, but in a separate report, the agency accused the police department of bias and cited offensive e-mails. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Ferguson police and courts have come under broad criticism for discriminatory practices. Eighty-five percent of people subjected to vehicle stops are African American, according to the report. Ninety percent of people hit with citations are African American. Ninety-three percent of people arrested are African American. But despite the racial overtones, other mechanisms are in play that that go back centuries.

This, as the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out on Twitter, is “plunder made legal” and “Municipal employees in Ferguson report sound more like shareholders. Gangsters.” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called it a system “primed for maximizing revenue” — one that now basically serves as a “collection agency” instead of “a law enforcement entity focused primarily on maintaining public safety.”

“The new Department of Justice report depicts a system in Ferguson that is much closer to a racket aimed at squeezing revenue out of its population than a properly working democracy,” wrote George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell in the Monkey Cage blog, which runs in The Washington Post. Ferguson city employees, from the police chief to the finance director, collaborated to generate revenue through tickets and fees, according to the Justice Department. As described in the report, Farrell and others pointed out, Ferguson is reminiscent of medieval Europe, when gangster governments collected “tribute” and bamboozled the subject population at every turn.

Here’s Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson writing to the city manager: “Municipal Court gross revenue for calendar year 2012 passed the $2,000,000 mark for the first time in history, reaching $2,066,050 (not including red light photo enforcement.)” The city manager was thrilled. “Awesome!” he wrote. “Thanks!”

And here’s a police captain, in March 2012, writing to the Ferguson city manager to boast of record collections to the tune of $235,000. “The [court clerk] girls have been swamped all day with a line of people paying off fines today,” he wrote the city official. “Since 9:30 this morning there hasn’t been less than 5 people waiting in line and for the last three hours 10 to 15 people at all times.” The city manager was, again, overjoyed at the revenues bolstering city coffers, lauding the police and court staff for their “great work.”

The staff also patted themselves on the back for charging more for petty offenses than other municipalities. “Our investigation found instances in which the court charged $302 for a single Manner of Walking violation; $427 for a single Peace Disturbance violation; $531 for high Grass and Weeds; $777 for Resisting Arrest; and $792 for Failure to Obey, and $527 for Failure to Comply, which officers appear to use interchangeably,” the Justice Department found.

And when people couldn’t pay, they were arrested. Around 21,000 people live in Ferguson. But in 2013, the city’s municipal court issued a staggering 32,975 arrest warrants for minor offenses, according to Missouri state records. “Folks have the impression that this form of low-level harassment isn’t about public safety,” Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, which explored the practices in a report last summer, told NPR. “It’s about money.”

And it goes beyond Ferguson. “For months,” the St. Louis Post Dispatch said, “the municipal courts of St. Louis County have fended off accusations by activists and law professors that they are modern-day debtor’s prisons.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, responding to the report, said the city has already begun reviewing the way it imposes and collects fines, noting it had approved an ordinance capping the revenue it gets from court fines and fees at 15 percent, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The tacit agreement between a police force and citizenry is that fines and taxes, while onerous, pay for necessary protection. It’s a process that often works well. But if it’s abused, it can “qualify as our largest examples of organized crime,” wrote Columbia University’s famed social scientist Charles Tilly, cited by Farrell. They take money and offer protection in an agreement that can work quite nicely, but frequently doesn’t.

“The word ‘protection’ sounds two contrasting tones,” Tilly wrote. “One is comforting, the other ominous. With one tone, ‘protection’ calls up images of the shelter against danger provided by a powerful friend … With the other, it evokes the racket in which a local strong man forces merchants to pay tribute in order to avoid damage — damage the strong man himself threatens to deliver.”

Or in Ferguson’s case, either you pay this ticket for having high grass or you’ll pay more money still and ultimately go to jail. Pay to protect yourself from the harm inflicted upon the woman who illegally parked her car.

“Consider the definition of a racketeer as someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction,” Tilly wrote, citing how European states first formed during the early 1600s. Venice, for example, was inhabited by both merchants working the ports and a government with questionable motives. “Governments’ provision of protection, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering,” he wrote.

The city of Ferguson works in a similar way. It strives to extract an ever-increasing amount of revenue from people who can’t afford to give another dime. “City, police, and court officials for years have worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process, beginning with how fines and fine enforcement processes are established,” the Justice Department report said.

The amount of revenue siphoned through citations rose 56 percent between 2011 and 2014 — from $1.4 million to $2.3 million — which netted the city a tidy tribute. So when the chief of police reported that his team had “beat our next biggest month in the last four years” in revenue collection, the city manager had one reaction.

“Wonderful!” he said.

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