Ferguson

How the DOJ Contributed to the Awful Ferguson Police Culture It Condemns

You know who else has a judicial system that is hard to fight and extracts money from citizens?

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Supports taking citizens' stuff
Credit: US Mission Geneva / photo on flickr

The Department of Justice's 100-page report on the behavior of police in Ferguson details a horror show of malign behavior from city officials devoted to dragging oftentimes poor, helpless (and black) citizenry through a complicated, inscrutable court system designed to wring them of whatever little money they possess.

While the racial politics behind Ferguson's policing garnered the bulk of media attention, as Ed Krayewski noted earlier in the week, the DOJ took aim at how the city used fines to generate revenue completely separate from any actual goals of improving public safety. And that revenue, obviously, was used to pay their own wages. They needed fines from the courts to justify the costs of the courts, of course! From the DOJ report:

Court staff are keenly aware that the City considers revenue generation to be the municipal court's primary purpose. Revenue targets for court fines and fees are created in consultation not only with Chief Jackson, but also the Court Clerk. In one April 2010 exchange with Chief Jackson entitled "2011 Budget," for example, the Finance Director sought and received confirmation that the Police Chief and the Court Clerk would prepare targets for the court's fine and fee collections for subsequent years. Court staff take steps to ensure those targets are met in operating court. For example, in April 2011, the Court Clerk wrote to Judge Brockmeyer (copying Chief Jackson) that the fines the new Prosecuting Attorney was recommending were not high enough. The Clerk highlighted one case involving three Derelict Vehicle charges and a Failure to Comply charge that resulted in $76 in fines, and noted this "normally would have brought a fine of all three charges around $400." After describing another case that she believed warranted higher fines, the Clerk concluded: "We need to keep up our revenue." There is no indication that ability to pay or public safety goals were considered.

More interestingly, the report delves into the obstacles citizens face when they attempt to challenge or even just interact with Ferguson's system of municipal justice. This complicated, deliberately bureaucratic system has gotten a lot of attention since the Ferguson shooting as journalists began realizing how all these small municipalities in St. Louis County actually work. According to the DOJ report, judges and prosecutors go hard against citizens and attorneys who attempt to defend themselves, with judges threatening defense attorneys with contempt charges for raising objections.

What Ferguson officials plainly wanted was for the citizens to keep their mouths shut, do what they're told, don't resist, pay up, and bugger off (oh, and they deliberately made it hard to pay up so they could try to pile on more charges).

But there's this: Would any of the awful behavior and treatment of the citizenry of Ferguson described in this report have been acceptable to the public had it been more fairly distributed across the community's demographic population? If more white people were captured by this awful system and wrung dry, would that have been fair or just?

Of course not. There is injustice in this system existing at all, not just in that it's happening primarily to minorities. And the Department of Justice has its own version of this system. The Department of Justice threatens defendants with dozens of federal charges that could put them behind bars for decades unless they accept plea deals and avoid a trial, a punishment for trying to defend themselves. Department of Justice prosecutors, working with other agencies like the IRS, seize assets from Americans and resist giving it back even when there's little evidence such Americans have done anything wrong. The DOJ engages in a lot of the same misbehavior found in the Ferguson system of justice—it's just not motivated by race.

Even though the Department of Justice may attack Ferguson's revenue-generating, they are quick to defend the role of their own "Equitable Sharing Program," the program that encourages law enforcement agencies to seize property and assets by allowing the agencies to keep 80 percent of what they take in the program. A White House report crafted in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the police's militarized response to protests defended the program, along with others, as "valuable and have provided state and local law enforcement with needed assistance as they carry out their critical missions in helping to keep the American people safe." Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch defended asset forfeiture as a useful tool for law enforcement at a Senate hearing.

Ferguson's police department participates in this federal program. According to research by The Washington Post, the city has spent more than $100,000 on equipment and weapons paid for with assets seized by police in Ferguson (this also means the federal government has also received money from law enforcement activities in the community as well). The DOJ's press office has not returned calls to find out whether Ferguson would be booted from the program due to its behavior. Ferguson officials have said they will attempt to settle with the Department of Justice, not fight, so probably not. The DOJ has only cut off access to the Equitable Sharing Program to a handful of law enforcement agencies. One of them, Maricopa County in Arizona, is infamous for resistance to attempts by the DOJ to reform the way it deals with immigrants and Latino citizens. It's easy to look at the program and see the DOJ using access to its funds as a carrot/stick to influence the behavior of local law enforcement agencies. This is not inherently a bad thing, but all of this knowledge about how the DOJ operates should cause anybody to look askance at the agency's credibility when it comes to evaluating the accessibility of fiscal propriety of any justice system in the country.

For that matter, the DOJ, just like Ferguson, brags about the millions—billions—of dollars it brings in from settlements and enforcement activities in its annual reports. They put out press releases and hold press conferences. The difference may be that its targets are often rich corporations (but not always, as their actions against a small Long Island vending business shows). The DOJ and state-level prosecutors are looking for big paydays, too, to help bolster the budgets of the governments they serve. My story in Reason's April issue, titled "The Settlement Shakedown," helps explain how this all works out (It's available online now to digital subscribers).

None of this is to dismiss what is clearly racist animus by the people in power in Ferguson. But if every victim described in the DOJ report on Ferguson had been white and the racist comments and e-mails hadn't happened, these incidents would still have been huge violations of the rights of the citizens. Many would argue that these incidents wouldn't have happened at all absent the racial component. I cannot possibly say they're wrong. Every single government in the country is driven to bring in revenue to perpetuate itself, and their targets will most likely be those who will have the hardest times protecting or defending themselves. This often means poor minorities and immigrants, but don't confuse the symptoms with the cause. Racism just one sorting tool for governments to decide who they're going to plunder.

NEXT: The Lame Liberal Attack on the 'Secretive' Federalist Society

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  1. But if every victim described in the DOJ report on Ferguson had been white and the racist comments and e-mails hadn’t happened, these incidents would still have been huge violations of the rights of the citizens have been ignored.

    ftfy

  2. OT, slightly related(?)

    Ladies and Gentlemen, your next Senator from Kalifoneyah, fighting against justice:

    http://observer.com/2015/03/ca…..onfession/

    1. Wow. Good for Kozinski at least.

    2. Oh crap, looks like I was beaten to it by jerryskids: https://reason.com/blog/2015/03…..nt_5135929

      Credit where credit is due!

    3. Surely she’ll be prosecuted for this crime.

  3. Clearly what’s needed is more Federal oversight of state and local governments. That will help prevent abuses and overreach like we see here.

    Perhaps a new cabinet-level bureau of “Government Oversight”, with “appropriate” staffing and budget.

    We’re so far past “doomed” that it’s just fugly at this point.

  4. If these corrupt people who stand against citizens – WHO PAY THEIR FUCKING SALARIES AND PENSIONS – want revenues and QUOTAS then man up and PRIVATIZE.

    Here in Montreal there was a public outcry by people who felt the cops were a little too zealous in handing out useless traffic violations (sometimes even conspiring to trick people into committing an infraction) to the point the Police Chief admitted what everyone knew – that there was a quota.

    Juke the stats.

    It’s amazing. Just amazing how they knowingly screw people out of their money and then have the audacity to storm City Hall and demand better pensions.

  5. Ah, the courts. Allowing the US citizenry to wallow in its own crapulence since, oh, let’s say 1907.

  6. You know who else contributed to an awful police culture?

    1. Captain Mauser and Sgt Proctor?

    2. Norman Stansfield?

    3. Hill Street Blues?

    4. Harry Anslinger?

      1. Excellent choice, HP: “This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others?the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races? Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death?Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing?You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother?Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

        http://web.mit.edu/cultureshoc…..lker2.html

    5. Rodney King?

  7. Justice is a massive business designed, erected, maintained, and perpetuated by and for a legal profession that follows the moolah of moral jurisprudence. General lawyernomics will shelve any attempt to divert its access to unlimited power and lucre.

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  9. ” They needed fines from the courts to justify the costs of the courts, of course!”

    Look, sometimes you gotta wreck your truck to get the insurance money to make the payment on the truck.

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  14. If they weren’t robbing the citizens, Ferguson could cut 85% of their police force.

  15. This article is BS. The Ferguson PD has been a corrupt festering wound for many, many years, long before the DOJ even noticed they existed.

    1. did you actually read the article? because the only way you could have possibly come away with that notion would be to scan the headline and jump right to the comments.

  16. No one here willing to talk about the fact that the report found no wrongdoing on the part of the officer, that the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ story was a lie, that Ferguson was burned and looted because of race-baiting liars?

    1. The Michael Brown shooting was the spark that ignited the fire (so to speak) in Ferguson, but the reasons for the riots and protests are a lot more complex and long predate the Brown incident. Brown was a last straw – this report illustrates much of the reasoning for how such an event could serve as the immediate cause for the chaos that ensued. Much as the 92 LA riots were about a lot more than Rodney King, the Ferguson riots were about a lot more than Michael Brown.

      1. I would be nice if the last straw was a bit more sympathetic. But I think you are correct.

        1. The last straw was a guy hitting a cop and trying to take his gun, and getting shot.
          Fuck Ferguson and the people who live there.

          1. “The last straw was a guy hitting a cop and trying to take his gun, and getting shot.”

            If you had any understanding of history or context, you might see why people there were reflexively skeptical of the police account of the story. I’m not defending the riots or rush to judgment, all I’m saying is that it is stupid to pretend like this happened in a vacuum and Michael Brown’s death was the sole cause of the aftermath.

          2. Yes, fuck Ferguson and God bless the shining hero police who will ride to clean out that wreck of a city!

        2. I don’t disagree. But it’s important to keep the context in mind and understand that this wasn’t a one-off incident that occurred in a vacuum and resulted in a reaction that came out of nowhere.

  17. Using fines created by the PD to fund the PD; isn’t that an obvious conflict of interest? And I bet most PDs operate the same.

    I suggest all fines should go to a fund to provide legal support for defendants.

    1. In Maine, the citations, tickets, etc. go to the general fund. Not quite the cash cow when all of it comes back in as “revenue.”

      1. Thats how it works for the *entire state* of Maine, is it?

  18. OT

    For those of us who remember him, Balko has a sweet new gig. He’s had it for about a year

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/…..roduction/

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