Michael Brown Shooting

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:

NEXT: Connecticut Town Approves "Free" Military Vehicle For Cops That Will Cost $54,000 in Asset Forfeiture Funds to Modify, Because Police Say Mass Shootings Are Up

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  1. Hey, we have to do something with that $11 Billion Dollars a month we spent on war for years.

  2. I lived for nearly a decade in St. Louis County during my college years

    Ten years in college? Either a slow learner, or someone decided to abandon their medical subspecialty after their final fellowship program to go into the lucrative world of reporting.

    1. $$$. Took a while but I ended up graduating with almost no debt!

      1. So you were just being sensible and prudent? That’s your story?

        Sure you wanna go with that?

        1. They say college is the place to experiment with unusual and unpopular ideas.

    2. Ten years in college?

      That puts one at age 28, just beyond the end of childhood – the tender age of 26.

  3. I’m glad to see my old Ellisville was not singled out, at least in the excerpts. Of course the free speech issue of flashing headlights to warn of speed traps got plenty of coverage on this site. Hopefully their promise that they saw the light was an honest one.

  4. My favorite part is the “court” (located in a gym) where the judge and prosecutor hear cases at different times (so while I’m in front of the prosecutor, the judge is dealing with the guy who was two slots ahead of me in line rather than listening to my case), so if the prosecutor is doing something even more unconstitutional you register your objections via DeLorean, I guess.

    1. Mine was about the cops who had rigged a light to be able to remotely switch it to red and it was revealed that they were using this “safety function” to generate ticket revenue.

      I think the American Revolution was fought over less bullshit that what Balko outlines in that piece.

    2. I’ve been to a court like this – only it was in a church. I shit you not. Church = state.

      And we still are naive enough to think sharia law won’t happen here. Shit, as our current system inevitably gets more corrupt, it will be seen as a viable alternative.

  5. Everything I learned about St Louis cops came from “Ride of the Century” youtube videos.

  6. I guess I would have more sympathy here, but every time an election comes up for the next great public-financed thing, the population votes yes in droves. So keep sucking on that big government teat. And take your wallet-rape silently.

  7. “Really bad pizza?” What, no deep dish in the whole city?

    1. I don’t understand the hate against St.Louis style pizza by the author.

  8. It has been a while since I have been there, but I recall the downtown bar district to be pretty happening. I forget the name of the distinct down by the river. You never went there?

    1. Laclede’s Landing? Looks kind of like Boston? Wasn’t really our scene (we were gamer dorks, not party types).

      1. Something like that. Old area with a lot of brick buildings down on the water not terribly far from the old ballpark. I recall it being a lot of fun back in the early 1990s.

  9. Am I to be expected to sympathize with a person who knowingly breaks all sorts of traffic laws and then gets caught? Boo hoo.

    The best part is the playing of the “won’t someone think about the children” card. Love-r-ly.

    I guess it would have been easier if she could’ve just been arrested and jailed by one super-mega-uber huge unified St. Louis Metro Area Cop force.

    Otherwise, drive slower, leave earlier, get there on time…or are libertarians suddenly AGAINST taking any sort of personal responsibility for one’s situation in life that one’s self created?

    1. Perhaps libertarians see a tiny gap between (a) taking personal responsibility and (b) falling into the grasp of the Total Police State.

    2. Traffic laws are bullshit.

    3. I guess it would have been easier if she could’ve just been arrested and jailed by one super-mega-uber huge unified St. Louis Metro Area Cop force.

      Given that it would probably hold court more than once every two weeks, it might well have.

  10. OT: Albino Cobra on Loose in Thousand Oaks, CA

    The Albino Cobra is described as “monocled.” I didn’t realize albino cobras were libertarians. I guess it’s the white privilege.

    1. WTF

      The dog that was bitten on Monday was taken to a veterinary hospital for treatment, said Brandon Dowling, spokesman for county animal control.

      The snake wasn’t reported by the injured dog’s owner, however, until late Tuesday, Dowling said.

      Hey dear a cobra just bit Rover. Do you think we might want to call the city or something? Nah.

      1. Oh, sure a Cobra bites someone/something and NOW EVERYONE WANTS THE GOVERNMENT INVOLVED….

        /mic drop

        1. It is one time that I would actually want the cops to show up and start shooting.

          1. Deal with the cobra by killing off its natural canine food supply, eh?

            1. Well played.

              Of course, being a libertarian cobra, it may also feed on the corpses of spent orphans.

        2. Shit yes, where’s fucking G.I. Joe for this crap?

  11. St. Louis has a bunch of private street associations, right? Where the residents own and maintain the roads, and often arrange their own security and garbage pickup?

    So it sounds like a libertarian paradise, which means everything wrong with the city is our fault.

    1. St. Louis is another way of saying “Somalia”

  12. What in the everloving fuck?

    Quinn describes one homeless girl who had been written up for violating an occupancy permit restriction. To simply reside in St. Louis County, you have to register your residence with the local government. What that entails varies from town to town. In the town of Berkeley, for example, new tenants must obtain an occupancy permit from the Inspections Department of the City of Berkeley. A permit costs $20, and requires a valid driver’s license or identification card. If your license has been suspended due to an outstanding warrant, you can’t move in. A permit includes the names of the people legally allowed to live at the residence. If you want to add additional names or change a name, it’s an additional $25 and a signed authorization from the landlord. And again, you’ll need an ID.

    I can’t wrap my head around how on earth such a thing could be constitutional (I know, I know, FYTW)

    1. This is the way things work where I live in Illinois. And yes, it’s awful.

      Remember, in any situation involving the government, you can go fuck yourself.

      The “Go Fuck Yourself” line is the next counter over, sir. Have a nice day.

  13. Just “fief” actually.

  14. And the people appointed to these positions have to be attorneys. In some of these towns, you just don’t have very many attorneys.

    There are thousands of small towns in America that work exactly the same way.

    Yes, it is exactly how the entire justice system became fucked up – more laws = more need for attorneys = more power for towns to “appoint” attorneys. There may be a shitload of lawyers, but they’re all in urban areas – rural areas have just as many violations if not more (because the police and mayors in dying rural areas don’t want to take pay cuts) so they have to hire attorneys from urban areas to drive 90 miles once a month to handle the work. And there are plenty of attorneys who will drive the distance because they don’t want to live in the dying rural area. And these urban lawyers do not give a flying fuck about anyone stupid enough to live in a dying rural area – fuck that trash (white or black) – so they are looked at as meat, fodder, or whatever else you want to call it. And they can easily get urban lawyers to do this because such “public service” is considered valid reason for law school loan forgiveness.

  15. So the TV show and video game Defiance is actually a realistic political criticism?

    Note: The TV show mostly sucks…have not played the game

  16. Toasted ravioli? Bad pizza? I thought the signature food of St. Louis was the St. Paul sandwich?

  17. I lived for nearly a decade in St. Louis County during my college years

    Your sophomore year? Toughest ten years of your life?

  18. Toasted Ravioli is cool, but you left out the STL BBQ, Slingers, and a particular strain of candida which originated on the East Side as the other defining foods.

  19. I guess if you have a plethora of outstanding warrants, in various jurisdictions, for failing to even appear in court for various violations, then you might get hauled from one court to the next. Even if some, or all, of those are victimless crimes, I don’t see what this tells us about St. Louis County municipal governance. Is there anywhere in the U.S. where you can drive on public roads without license, registration, or proof of insurance, without (potentially) getting into legal trouble?

  20. I had a buddy who was written up on a zoning violations because he had a car up on cinder blocks in his yard. He ended up spending 30 days in jail. It was in this tiny town where the court is literally held in a double-wide trailer. I thought it was just an anomaly. I quickly realized that sort of thing is common.

    WTF. If your town going to hold court in a goddamn double-wide, it’s rank hypocrisy to cite people for having a car on cinder blocks. You does not have justification for having zoning ordinances that restrictive. That’s just not cool, man.

  21. “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”

    maybe this is because the problem has nothing to do with racism, cruelty and oppresion exists all over the world without regard to whether the population is of a homogenous race or not.

  22. Local governments are out of control. Parking meters, speed cameras, big brother eveywhere waiting to get his hand in your pocket but it’s not right to characterize it as a racial issue. These government abuses are everywhere so let’s be honest. The inner cities probably have more of it and that’s because virtually no one in the inner cities pays taxes so they find other absurd ways to raise revenue to support the bureaucracy including fines, tickets and absurd real estate taxes that virtually eliminate future development and cause current residents to flee.

    Baltimore City is a good example. They just implemented a “rain tax” which is levied against anyone owning property that has impervious surfaces (i..e paved). Their property tax is 3X that of the nearby suburban Baltimore County. Who in their right mind would buy property in a crime ridden city and pay 3 times higher property taxes?

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