‘Policiteering’: A Failure of Democracy

I’ll flesh this out below, but I doubt if these policies were put up to a referendum–or even just an open discussion–they would be approved (boldface mine):

But maybe the question to ask is: Why did Scott run? The answer came when the New York Times revealed Scott to be a man of modest means trapped in an exhausting hamster wheel: He would get a low-paying job, make some child support payments, fall behind on them, get fined, miss a payment, get jailed for a few weeks, lose that job due to absence, and then start over at a lower-paying job. From all apparent evidence, he was a decent schlub trying to make things work in a system engineered to make his life miserable and recast his best efforts as criminal behavior.

Recently, two more deaths of African Americans that have blown up in the media follow a pattern similar to Scott’s. Sandra Bland in Texas and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati were each stopped for minor traffic infractions (failing to use turn signal, missing front license plate), followed by immediate escalation by the officer into rage, and then an official story that is obviously contradicted by the video (that the officer tried to “de-escalate” the tension with Bland; that the officer was dragged by DuBose’s car). In both cases, the perpetrator of a minor traffic offense died….

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….

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.

Evidence also suggests that this new form of raising revenue—policiteering?—goes far beyond Ferguson…

“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,” said William Maurer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who has been studying the sudden rise in “nontraffic-related fines.”

…Maurer explains that in 2010, Missouri passed a law that capped the amount of city revenue that any agency could generate from traffic stops. The intent was to limit small-town speed traps, but the unintentional consequences are now clear: Pagedale saw a 495 percent increase in nontraffic-related arrests. “In Frontenac, the increase was 364 percent,” Maurer says. “In Lakeshire, it was 209 percent.”

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.

Outside of the sociopathic Uruk-hai Republican base, I would argue many people–including many white people–do not view this as good policy (perhaps I’m being uncharacteristically optimitic). If someone were to put these policies on a ballot–”Do you think we should egregiously fine people, who are disproportionately not white, in a Kafkaesque manner over minor code infractions?”–I would like to think a majority would not approve. But most of these policies are being made on the QT; citizens typically aren’t aware they exist, unless they happen to be targeted by them. If you’re well-off enough, you just pay the fine: annoying, but not life-altering. Otherwise you’re sunk.

As I’ve written before about policing, this is a failure of democratic governance.

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