Michael Brown

A Visit to the Numerous 'Fiefdoms' of St. Louis County


Downtown St. Louis, an area many St. Louis residents probably don't recognize.
Credit: Thomas Hawk / photo on flickr

If you read only one more analysis of the state of government and policing in the St. Louis area today (besides this blog post) make it former Reason editor Radley Balko's lengthy look today over at The Washington Post.

Before delving in to some of Balko's observations, a somewhat relevant disclosure: I lived for nearly a decade in St. Louis County during my college years and I have family who still live there. I haven't written much about St. Louis from a first-person perspective in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting for the same reason I haven't written about Sanford, Florida, where I went to middle and high school, from a first-person perspective: Despite all my time there as a lower-middle-class white guy, I never ran in the same circles as my minority peers in these compartmentalized communities. I can't even claim to extrapolate the kinds of things they went through. I don't believe I ever even set foot in Ferguson during my entire time there.

And that is partly what Balko's piece, focusing on how communities in St. Louis County are balancing their books on the backs of their poor residents, is about. St. Louis is a compartmentalized—almost Balkanized—community. It's segregated not just by race, but by class and a whole host of other signifiers. Googling "Where did you go to high school?" is a good way to understand the odd ways in which St. Louis' culture manifests. I had a friend who spent most of his life in St. Louis County and had been downtown fewer times than I had been. The sports teams, toasted ravioli, and really bad pizza are all that unite the city.

Balko's piece focuses on how all the dozens of little municipalities within St. Louis County popped up, the racial politics and migration patterns behind them, and the consequences of each of these municipalities looking for ways to bankroll the government jobs they're insisting they need. Ferguson isn't an anomaly. Ferguson is the system. Balko opens with the story of what happened to Nicole Bolden, a woman who was in a crash that wasn't her fault but was nevertheless arrested:

The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: the towns of Florissant and Hazelwood in St. Louis County, and the town of Foristell in St. Charles County. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn't appeared in court because she didn't have the money. A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt, and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call "poverty violations" — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration, and a failure to provide proof of insurance.

The Florissant officer first took Bolden to the jail in that town, where Bolden posted a couple hundred dollars bond and was released at around midnight. She was next taken to Hazelwood and held at the jail there until she could post a second bond. That was another couple hundred dollars. She wasn't released from her cell there until around 5 pm the next day. Exhausted, stressed, and still worried about what her kids had seen, she was finally taken to the St. Charles County jail for the outstanding warrant in Foristell. Why the county jail? Because the tiny town of 500 isn't large enough to have its own holding cell, even though it does have a mayor, a board of aldermen, a municipal court, and a seven-member police department. It's probably most well-known locally for the speed trap its police set along I-170.

By the time Bolden got to St. Charles County, it had been well over 36 hours since the accident. "I hadn't slept," she says. "I was still in my same clothes. I was starting to lose my mind." That's when she says a police officer told her that if she couldn't post bond, they'd keep her in jail until May. "I just freaked out," she says. "I said, 'What about my babies? Who is going to take care of my babies?" She says the officer just shrugged.

"It's different inside those walls," Bolden says. "They treat you like you don't have any emotions. I know I have a heavy foot. I have kids. I have to work to support them. I've also been taking classes. So I'm late a lot. And when I'm late, I speed. But I'm still a human being."

Balko notes that most of these municipalities, not just Ferguson, rely on citations against their own citizens in order to balance its budget. He notes that in some communities, the number of outstanding arrest warrants exceeds the number of residents.

The racial politics of the migration of whites and blacks within St. Louis County is fully documented in Balko's piece, but there's more. Black migration to Ferguson is relatively recent, which helps explain why black residents are not well represented in government and police. But what about other communities where blacks are well represented in government? Turns out those communities are still looking to fines and fees to pay for its employees:

The town of Berkeley, for example, has unusually high black political participation. For about a century, there was a historically black enclave in northwest St. Louis County called Kinloch. In the 1980s, most of Kinloch was erased due to an expansion of the St. Louis airport. Much of Kinloch's population wound up in nearby Berkeley, infusing the town with black residents who had been in the area for generations, and had well-established traditions of political participation and self government. Currently, Berkeley has an all-black city council, a black mayor, a black city manager, and majority-black police force.

If any town could overcome the legacy of structural racism that drew the map of St. Louis County, then, it would be Berkeley. And yet this town of 9,000 people still issued 10,452 traffic citations last year, and another 1,271 non-traffic ordinance violations. The town's municipal court raised over $1 million in fines and fees, or about $111 per resident. The town issued 5,504 arrest warrants last year, and has another 13,436 arrest warrants outstanding. Those are modest numbers for St. Louis County, but they're high for just about anywhere else.

What makes Balko's research additionally compelling is that he also explores the horrific business regulatory schemes that make it next to impossible for the poor to turn to entrepreneurship to improve their fate. Remember, the City of St. Louis managed to fine a Lyft driver within 90 minutes of them launching their services.

I do bring up the regulatory burdens because of a personal connection (which is why I broke from my pattern of non-comment). Balko brings up a horrific case in 2008 where a black businessman, unable to deal with the regulatory burdens placed on businesses by the City of Kirkwood, snapped and shot up a Kirkwood City Council meeting:

In 2008, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton shot up city hall in the town of Kirwood, killing two city council members, a city planner, and two police officers. He also badly wounded the mayor. When the mostly white Kirkwood annexed the unincorporated black community of Meacham Park 15 years earlier, the construction business Thornton had built and run out of his home ran afoul of his new town's zoning regulations. Thornton didn't have the money to move his business to another part of town. Over the next decade, he accumulated $20,000 in fines, lost his business, declared bankruptcy, and was reduced a community punchline. He was the guy with the signs on his van, who interrupted city council meetings with grand conspiracies, and filed lawsuits that were barely readable. His friends and family say the constant harassment cost him his sanity.

My family lives in Kirkwood. I didn't know any of the victims of the shooting, but my family did, and I endured the dreadful experience of having to call them to make sure they were okay. Balko brings Thornton up in the context of describing the absolutely insane experiences of a black man in Pine Lawn who keeps getting cited for operating a business without a license, even though he does actually have a license. (I hope Los Angeles residents read that section and keep it in mind as the city moves forward with its administrative citation program, but I doubt it.)

I've probably quoted far too much of Balko's piece beyond basic fair use. I recommend everybody read it, especially those who want to simply classify St. Louis' problems as racial issues. That's not untrue, but it's incomplete. It's the power of government to implement policies that end up making life miserable and nearly impossible for poor people that has a devastating impact on minorities.

And below, when Reason TV went to Ferguson, residents were quick to describe how they had been targeted for minor problems by police: