Petty Law Enforcement and Its Effect on Ferguson


Walter Olson writes at Cato's blog on an interesting angle on the background that fed into the people of Ferguson's attitudes about police:

Reading through this Newsweek article on the troubled relations between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo. before this month's blowup, this passage jumped out at me:

"Despite Ferguson's relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400," according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, "or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household."

The town gets nearly a quarter of its municipal revenue from court fees – the figure in some neighboring towns is even higher – and according to the ArchCity Defenders report quoted in Newsweek, Ferguson's municipal court is among the very worst in the way it adds its own hassle factor to the collection of petty fines:

ArchCity Defenders, which has tracked ticketing of St. Louis area residents for five years and focused primarily on vehicle violations, started a court-watching program because so many of its clients complained of traffic prosecution wreaking havoc on their lives. Defendants routinely alleged that a racially-motivated traffic stop led to their being jailed due to inability to pay traffic fines, which in turn prompted people to "los[e] jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration." … One resident quoted in the study said, "It's ridiculous how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the people who drive through the area."

Racial antagonism between residents and law enforcement is bad no matter what, but it's worse when residents wind up interacting constantly with law enforcement because of a culture of petty fines. (If you doubt that law enforcement in Ferguson has been touched by a culture of petty fines, read this Daily Beast account of how the town sought to charge a jail inmate for property damage for bleeding on its officers' uniforms – even though the altercation with jailers arose after the town had picked up the wrong guy on a warrant issued on a common name.)

My colleague Scott Shackford says that in his examination of Ferguson's finances he thinks the figure about percentage of revenue from court fees is more like 10 percent, not nearly a quarter, but the larger point remains.

I've written before in Reason on the ways petty law enforcement mess with the lives of especially the poor, including  here and here.

If indeed more people's usual interactions with police had anything to do with "protecting and serving" and less with violently messing up your life for reasons that can seem petty and pointless, from people whose version of respect is "do everything I say the way I'm comfortable with or you might die," the atmosphere surrounding what happened in Ferguson would likely be less toxic.

I remember a few years ago lecturing on libertarianism to a group of community college kids in downtown Atlanta. They sniffed a bit of anarchism around what I was discussing, though I wasn't explicit about it. How would society work without police, a student asked me? I asked them this Zen question: contemplate for a moment that, in any respect in which it helped rather than harmed your life, there pretty much already are no police.

No one argued much.