The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How segregation led to speed traps, traffic tickets and distrust outside St. Louis

Protesters raise their hands in front of police atop an armored vehicle in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. (AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes)
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Ferguson, Missouri, collects around $2 million annually in fines and fees, mostly from traffic tickets -- a 44 percent increase from three years ago, the city's annual budget shows.

According to data compiled by Better Together, an economic-development group in St. Louis, fines for speeding and other violations account for more than 14 percent of Ferguson's municipal revenue. The town of 21,203 is too small and too poor to support itself with taxes, so police help the city's bottom line by ticketing drivers aggressively, say advocates of local reform.

Ferguson's finances -- which are typical of cities in St. Louis County -- are ultimately a legacy of decades of racial segregation, according to Better Together's Marius Johnson.

What does Jim Crow have to do with traffic tickets? Decades ago, Johnson explained, whites formed little towns by the dozen in order to avoid sharing schools and public services with blacks.

"They're smaller, because they were trying to isolate themselves," Johnson said.

But as the black population grew, whites fled and property values fell. Now these little towns are largely black, and taxes aren't adequate to support municipal government. No fewer than 90 municipalities are crowded into the county, and many of them have budgetary problems because of their diminutive size.

Better Together was formed by local business and community leaders to study the effects that the fragmented system of local government in St. Louis has on the economy. It is an inefficient and costly structure, as former state legislator Jeff Smith told The New York Times.

"If you only have 500 people in your town, but you need to have your own public safety apparatus, it's very expensive," Smith told me.

To raise money, towns turn to their traffic cops, and the consequences are clear in the data. In three jurisdictions -- Calverton Park, Bella Villa and Vinita Terrace -- more than 50 percent of municipal revenue is collected through the courts, according to the data from Better Together. Their populations are 1,293, 729, and 277 respectively.

The larger town of Webster Groves has sounder finances. The population of 22,995 is 89.9 percent white, and fines and fees account for only 7 percent of municipal revenue. For the city of St. Louis proper, which is not in the county of the same name, the figure is about 2 percent.

Towns that rely largely on revenue from traffic tickets are "over-policed," former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch once explained to the local radio station KDHX. "The laws are over-enforced," he said.

"People really feel harassed," said Thomas Harvey, the director of ArchCity Defenders, a public defenders' group in St. Louis. "If you ask our clients, they believe they're being stopped, first, because they're black. And they also believe that it's not about public safety, it's about generating revenue for the courts."

The perception that some blacks have that they more likely to be stopped because of their skin is not mistaken. A report by the state's attorney general found that police officers across the state and in many St. Louis County jurisdictions were stopping a disproportionate number of blacks. The report also found that blacks were more likely to be searched or arrested after being stopped, even though they were less likely to be carrying contraband.

What compounds the injustice of this situation is that poverty can turn a traffic ticket into something much more serious.

A person who is fined for speeding might become unable to pay their driver's insurance after their premiums are increased. If they are stopped again, their license could be suspended, and the fines will continue to accumulate, Harvey said.

Many who are ticketed cannot afford to pay their fines and are sent to jail, sometimes for a few weeks. Defendants are entitled to a hearing to determine whether they are genuinely unable to pay, in which case they are not supposed to be jailed under law, but few of them are aware of their rights, according to a white paper from ArchCity Defenders.

"These guys aren't criminals. They're poor people," Harvey said. "They're being told, 'Call everybody you know, and get some money, because I know you want to go home.' "

Knowing that they are unable to pay, many people who have been ticketed for speeding or rolling through a stop sign will not appear in court, in which case the court will issue a warrant for their arrest. Pine Lawn, a town with a population of 3,275, had 23,457 outstanding arrest warrants, the Riverfront Times reported earlier this year. Ferguson's municipal court issued a little more than one warrant per each man, woman and child living in the city in 2013, according to ArchCity Defenders.

Harvey's unluckiest clients -- who are jailed or who lose their drivers' licenses -- also lose their jobs when they are unable to get to work, and sometimes, their houses or their apartments.

The fines can depress demand for goods and services around the county, said Smith, the former legislator. Fewer people have money to spare, and business is slow for stores and restaurants, he argued. The effect of policing on the local economy makes it even harder for municipal governments to balance their budgets. In a vicious cycle, they become even more dependent on the courts as source of revenue.

"It's really short-sighted," Smith said.

One way or another, it looks like a consensus is emerging among community leaders about the need for reform. Ferguson officials are reportedly in talks with the county police department about replacing the Ferguson force entirely to save money and address residents' complaints about racism.

In an acknowledgment of the problem, the city council has also proposed to cap the fines and fees it collects at 15 percent of its revenue. City officials note that the problem is far worse in other jurisdictions.

"You need to go look at other cities," Mayor James Knowles told The Huffington Post. "Just look around us, look at our neighbors."

Better Together recommends a state law capping fines and fees at 10 percent, which could force towns like Ferguson to dissolve or merge with their neighbors if they can't find other ways to save money.