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Stop Expecting the Justice Department to Fix Your City’s Abusive Fining and Policing Practices

Accountability starts at home.

Jeff SessionsYin Bogu Xinhua News Agency/NewscomOne would be forgiven for thinking that over the holiday weekend, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave cities permission to throw poor people in jail and burden them with huge fines. There were headlines that suggested exactly that. (Here's one from Vice: "Jeff Sessions gives OK for towns like Ferguson to hit the poor with heavy fines.")

What actually happened was mostly symbolic: Right before Christmas, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice was rescinding 25 "guidance" documents produced over several decades. These documents were essentially Justice Department interpretations of what federal regulation and statutes meant in practice, often based on court rulings. Sessions argues that these guidance documents were either "unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law, or were otherwise improper."

It would be more accurate to say that what Sessions' action does is signal that his Department of Justice is not going to be coming into cities and demanding that they be less harsh on the citizenry. That's not terribly surprising, unfortunately. We've seen Sessions' criticism of Justice Department agreements with city police departments to try to restrain abusive policing practices.

Sessions' revoking this guidance technically changes nothing at all. If the Justice Department believes cities are violating citizens' civil rights, it can still sue them. Former Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta said the guidance letter came specifically because cities were asking the Justice Department for information and says that the letter explained existing laws and court precedents.

One of these guidance documents was a "Dear Colleague" letter from 2016 from the Civil Rights Division warning municipalities against using fines and fees—particularly against poor people—as a mechanism to fund the government. This guidance came in the wake of the unrest and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown by local police. Brown's death wasn't connected to the town's court system, but the sudden media attention on St. Louis County highlighted that many of the small communities that lacked a strong tax base were bankrolling their government and courts with harsh, relentless systems of fees and fines.

This Justice Department guidance warned this behavior by cities could be considered an unconstitutional violation of civil rights and could result in federal lawsuits and encouraged cities to develop alternatives to tossing poor people in jail if they couldn't afford fees or fines.

Sessions' actions serve as a useful reminder that the federal government should not be seen as the cavalry that can come running in to fix abusive behavior by police departments. It's not, and typically when the Justice Department comes in and tries to tell local police what to do, it's all about demanding more training and bureaucracy and much less about getting rid of bad cops. When the Justice Department got involved in Ferguson's operations, they actually ordered the town to pay its police officers more at the same time that it was warning them about fining the citizenry too much.

All of this inappropriate focus on whether the Justice Department will and won't punish bad policing practices distracts from the real problem: the wholesale inability or unwillingness of states and cities to punish and expel bad police officers. The emphasis on training and constitutional enforcement is a way of trying to ignore that union power has made it next to impossible to get rid of the bad apples. Federally mandated institutional changes are not going to matter as long as state and local laws and union-negotiated processes prevent law enforcement agencies from kicking out bad cops. Nor does it do anything about the oppressive municipal laws themselves that push the police to ticket and punish poor people over the things they have to do to get by in the first place (like street vending).

As an example, right now Chicago's police union is suing because the police department is implementing stricter guidelines on the use of stun guns, attempting to stop officers' overreliance on them on people who are running away or intoxicated. The police union's complaint is that these rules were implemented without their participation and approval. But the circumstances by which the police are allowed to unleash violence on citizens should not be something subjected to collective bargaining.

Photo Credit: Yin Bogu Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

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  • Crusty Juggler||

    (Here's one from Vice:

    Since we're on the topic of Vice:

    In 2003 Vice reached a $25,000 settlement with the freelance writer Jessica Hopper. The deal involved defamation claims tied to an interview she did with the rapper Murs that was published in the February 2003 issue of the magazine, according to a copy of the agreement viewed by The Times. During the interview, Murs asked Ms. Hopper if he could have sex with her. She said no and included that answer in her article.
    But before the article was published, the magazine changed her response to yes and printed it under the headline, "I Got Laid But Murs Didn't."
  • Rhywun||

    an insurgent force in news and entertainment known for edgy content that aims for millennial audiences

    *books ticket on next Reason cruise*

  • Crusty Juggler||

    All of this inappropriate focus on whether the Justice Department will and won't punish bad policing practices distracts from the real problem: the wholesale inability or unwillingness of states and cities to punish and expel bad police officers. The emphasis on training and constitutional enforcement is a way of trying to ignore that union power has made it next to impossible to get rid of the bad apples. Federally mandated institutional changes are not going to matter as long as state and local laws and union-negotiated processes prevent law enforcement agencies from kicking out bad cops. Nor does it do anything about the oppressive municipal laws themselves that push the police to ticket and punish poor people over the things they have to do to get by in the first place (like street vending).

    The federal government will solve all local issues like it always does, Shackford.

  • KBeckman||

    "But the circumstances by which the police are allowed to unleash violence on citizens should not be something subjected to collective bargaining."

    This cannot be said enough.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    No, it can't, alas.

  • Eidde||

    I understand that states municipalities mistreat the poor with the fines they impose.

    Why did this suddenly come on the federal government's radar, though?

    I think the answer is that the Obama/Holder Justice Department was forced to conclude that the cop who shot Michael Brown may well have been acting lawfully, and that there simply wasn't enough evidence to promote the progs' favored narrative of an innocent "gentle giant" killed by a racist cop.

    Realizing that they had to acknowledge this, the Justice Department decided to release its report on municipal fining practices to coincide with dropping proceedings against the cop - so that the headline could be "Justice Department denounces Ferguson PD" instead of "Justice Department disappoints SJWs by rejecting their Michael Brown narrative."

  • Tony||

    Criminal justice reform has long been on the left's radar. I realize you libertarians struggle with the subject because it often interferes with your "the black man is responsible for all my problems" narrative.

  • Eidde||

    Obama and Holder are a couple of racist libertarians in your world, as is journalist Jonathan Capeheart, who is obviously a white yokeltarian because he agrees with the Justice Department, but a trick of the video makes him look black.

  • Subpoena'd Woodchipper||

    I think you are confusing libertarians, I can't think of any libertarian that would say black people are responsible for anyone else's problems. Libertarians mainly have a beef with the government. I know I'm talking/replying to someone who has no legitimate argument on this site, only platitudes and feel good responses to boost his ego, usually along the lines of libertarians=bad/government action=good

  • Some Engineer||

    This Tony comment is especially fucktarded.

  • Rhywun||

    union power has made it next to impossible to get rid of the bad apples

    When BLM gets done affirming transsexuals and smashing the Western nuclear family, maybe they might consider taking a look at police unions.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    So if your local or state government is violating your rights, you shouldn't try to get the federal government to make them stop, you should just ask them nicely to stop until they get tired of it and stop on their own?

  • Scott S.||

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Excellent! :)

  • Eidde||

    Of course you should *try* to get federal help, but don't hold your breath waiting for their help to arrive, or waiting for it to be helpful.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Its a lot easier to get rid of a city councilman or a state rep than it is to dethrone a US congress creature.

  • croaker||

    All are equal under Rule 308.

  • Hank Stamper||

    A "large portion" of the Jackson Magnolia, a tree that has been a South Lawn fixture since the 1800s, is being removed, the White House says. It had become a safety hazard after decades of decay, according to the White House.

    Breaking news: Trump hates trees and the environment!

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    You know what else is a safety hazard after decades of decay...

  • Eidde||

    Hitler's brain?

  • Hank Phillips||

    The Nixon anti-libertarian campaign bribery law?

  • Rhywun||

    Damn Yankee.

  • jcalton||

    "The emphasis on training and constitutional enforcement is a way of trying to ignore that union power has made it next to impossible to get rid of the bad apples."

    I can't stand public unions and police unions are the worst of the worst...but bad cops were not really the biggest problem in Ferguson: oppressive fines as revenue as the core of the judicial/municipal budget system.

    Unions have little to nothing to do with Ferguson's (et al.) city council, judges, prosecutors, and bureaucrats that create and maintain a system like that.

    When an oppressed (in the literal sense) minority have no political power, they often DO need to rely on 3rd parties to help them.

    This is getting awfully close to telling black people that they need to stop being so lazy and bootstrap their way to change/success.

  • Scott S.||

    I'm sorry but that's like saying that police and police unions have little to nothing to do with the drug war. After all it's lawmakers and prosecutors and bureaucrats who create and maintain the system.

    Try to actually eliminate these laws and see who lobbies to stop it. "Broken windows policing" was not invented by bureaucrats.

  • Tony||

    One should expect unions to work on behalf of what their members perceive as their best interests, which for cops may include maximizing their own liberty and limiting their liability.

    The sick part of this union rhetoric is that you're trotting out dead black men in service of a general anti-union crusade.

    Whether cops or any other workers in any field should be able to collectively bargain for their interests is an entirely separate question from whether policing is abusive. I think your desire to see workers under the authoritarian boot of management is clouding your ability to assess this specific issue coherently.

  • Eidde||

    "Whether cops or any other workers in any field should be able to collectively bargain for their interests is an entirely separate question from whether policing is abusive."

    Let me explain this in simple terms for you...protecting abusive cops *is* in the unions' interest, therefore collective bargaining for police and abusive police practices are connected questions.

    Or let me put it this way: You are a moron.

  • Tony||

    Protecting cops is the motive. Unionization doesn't necessarily correlate to abusive practices. In any other industry they protect against abuses by management. It just seems a meandering way to go about police reform. Do you think perhaps the core of the problem might exist somewhere higher than the union? Or are you just union bashing because your brains aren't permitted more than three or so ideas at once?

  • Subpoena'd Woodchipper||

    Yes, the drug laws are lobbied for by police and prison guard unions, that's the whole point Scott is trying to make, you are just too obtuse to acknowledge such.

    In the run up to the marijuana legalisation push in every state, police and prison guard unions lobbied against and spent taxpayer money (that's who writes their paychecks) to attempt to defeat the bill. Fewer drug laws and there are fewer arrests for victimless crimes and fewer criminals to put in cages. Fewer criminals to put in cages equals fewer cages over time. Fewer cages means less workers who have to tend to the people put in the remaining cages. Fewer people needed to administer to the people in cages equals less taxpayer money for the unions.

    That's how the logic works. It pains me that I had to get that granular with it. And before you trot out private prisons, they only account for 7-8% of cages in the US.

  • Hank Phillips||

    True dat. Reagan resisted the commie flight controllers' attempt to encourage soviet war planning. I also recall Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne telling a bunch of closed-shop First Responder™ union leeches where to get off. This whole business of monopolizing services under little Napoleons then allowing parasites to dominate them has been the worst pollution of JFK's legacy.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Anyone too lazy to vote Libertarian will get little sympathy from me.

  • Hank Phillips||

    After Tricky Dick Nixon used the IRS code to subsidize Democrat and Republican candidates for office, federal government personnel stopped growing. The reason for that and for the Nixon move itself was the forming of the Libertarian Party eager to compete for fiscal thrift votes. The law was an adder tossed into the LPs crib. Cities sensed the danger of libertarian candidates breaking the silence that nets them the Sanction of the Victims (and their cash and forfeiture of assets). Local elections became loudly "non-partisan," which was the equivalent of hanging "looters only" signs over drinking fountains and government restrooms. So... with all this non-partisan parasitism, guess which governments have continued to swell and fatten, gorging on the population's income and assets?

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