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Some police revenue streams are more outrageous than others

By   /   March 17, 2015  /   No Comments

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BUDGET IN CHAINS: When police departments depend on fines and other alternative revenue sources, they have an incentive to find criminal activity where it doesn’t exist.

By Peter Ingemi | Watchdog Arena

There has been a lot of news out of Ferguson lately.

You had the release of the Justice Department report that, while clearing officer Wilson and debunking “Hands up don’t shoot,” hit the police department for racial practices which led to protests, resignations, the shooting of two police officers and, last  weekend, the arrest of Jeffrey Williams, the shooter.

But in all the news coverage, protests, and resulting spin, there is one aspect of this story that, for several reasons, is worthy of a lot more attention before it’s forgotten:  the outrageous use of policing as a city revenue stream.

 From the report:

The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement.  Patrol assignment an schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation.

This practice sets up a perverse reward system if you are a cop, the report explained:

Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity” meaning the number of citations issued.

And the courts aren’t helping either:

The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct.  Instead the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests.

This is not a new issue to some. Rand Paul,for example, has talked about it for a while, most recently at Bowe state university in Maryland:

“Several cities in Missouri, over a third of their budget is gotten by fines,” Paul said. “In Ferguson, there’s 21,000 people. Last year, there were 31,000 arrests.

Here at Watchdog.org, Arthur Kane wrote about a bill to reign in such abuses in Colorado earlier this year:

Senate Bill 2015-006 would prevent police from taking any assets without a guilty conviction unless there is a settlement with all the parties, including the owner, agreeing to give up the property. The legislation is also likely to discourage police from going to the feds because any money from sold assets would go directly to the state general fund instead of to individual police agencies.

Events in Ferguson havebrought national attention to this issue from many sources, from the libertarian site Reason:

More importantly, however, this report also focused much more on the perverse incentives created in policing when local governments rely on fines levied against residents as a major source of revenue. 

To Fox News on the Right:

It is hard to believe that things have been this bad for so long, yet unknown to the feds until Michael Brown was killed. The DoJ should sue Ferguson, and air all this out in a public courtroom in front of a local jury; as the people have a right to know what the government is doing and has been doing in their names. And the people are entitled to the popular mechanisms–a jury trial–by which to hold a lawless local government accountable.

And the Washington Post on the left:

These findings align with last year’s reporting by The Post’s Radley Balko, who detailed how the jigsaw puzzle of tiny municipalities in the St. Louis area fund their duplicative operations with money squeezed out of the vulnerable. A system of fines, fees and other sanctions can too easily trap those who don’t have the time, knowledge or money to extract themselves from its grip. 

All seem united in their outrage at this use of police not to “serve and protect” citizens, but to “tax and collect” from them.

Alas, while this unity in protecting citizens from abuse sounds hopeful in theory, the reality is the outrage over this practice, at least for some, is selective.

You might recall after the murder of two police officers in NYC there was a “Police slowdown” in the city whereby officers refused to use their power as a city revenue source.  At the time Glenn Reynolds noted:

The real scandal isn’t that NYC is being denied law enforcement now, it’s that much of that “law enforcement” is really just a system designed to squeeze money out of the citizenry.

At DaTechguyblog, I argued protesters could use this “hidden tax” to widen their appeal  but would not because the left depends on this revenue stream to fund government functions and programs.

Sure enough the city acted:

Police officers around the city are now threatened with transfers, no vacation time and sick time unless they write summonses.”

And the media reacted:

NYT:   Police Slowdown Cost New York City an Estimated $5 Million in Lost Fines

Al Jazeera America:  NY police’s apparent slowdown creates unease in poor communities

CBS:  Report: Apparent Police Slowdown Cost NYC $5 Million In Lost Fines

The Washington Post:  The NYPD slowdown can only turn out badly for the police

Slate:  The Police Slowdown Has Cost New York City Millions in Lost Parking-Ticket Revenue

Apparently while policies that united left and right in justified outrage are to be condemned when practiced in communities like Ferguson, those same practices, when used to fund the budgets of major cities governed by the left, are not only justified, but are to be defended by the mainstream media as absolutely vital to societal well-being.

Or as a man named Orwell once wrote:  “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.

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Peter "DaTechGuy" Ingemi is an award-winning blogger who has been blogging at DaTechGuyblog.com since 2008. He has covered presidential, senatorial, congressional and state campaigns across the country with his trademark Fedora & Dr. Who scarf. He hosted DaTechGuy on DaRadio on AM Radio from 2010 until 2014. Since 2013 he has been joined at his blog by his Magnificent Seven bloggers from across the country who contribute on a daily basis. Find him on Twitter: @DaTechGuyblog