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Police Reform

Stop Funding Government on the Backs of Poor People

First out of the starting blocks, if police reform is to be based upon the premise that justice is the objective, it requires that we get to the crux of the problem and ask where police officers get their directives. The 102-page Department of Justice’s report, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” of March 4, 2015 (which can be found online at the DOJ website), gets to the heart of the matter.

The report about Ferguson, Missouri, under the title of “Focus on Generating Revenue” states, “The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement.” About police practices, the report says, “The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on Ferguson Police Department’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and 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.

Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on productivity, meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than potential offenders and sources of revenue. This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct.”

Too many communities still depend on revenue from traffic tickets and misdemeanor fines for a slew of incidents, which does not make the community safer.

Like the above, too many communities still depend on revenue from traffic tickets and misdemeanor fines for a slew of incidents, which does not make the community safer. What the effects accomplish, instead, is, over time, they turn misdemeanors into felonies. This occurs because so often the accused cannot pay their fines, and accumulated charges add to the seriousness of the original offense. The stress accumulation from these practices turns communities into the equivalent of occupied territory in war zones.

In Blue Bias I characterize communities that are over-policed in part for the purposes of raising the revenue to run local government as “cortisol canyons.” These are areas where fear of local bad actors includes the police, whose patrol functions are not unlike raptors in search of prey, looking for infractions that raise the revenue of police departments who are directed in roll call to write more tickets and make more arrests. Local politicians, beginning with mayors, as the above example shows, often put pressure on police chiefs, who pass it on to the street, to write more tickets and issue more summonses. Instead of making these communities safer, the over-policing just makes these neighborhoods exceptionally stressful places to live, and worse, the more time officers spend with petty offenses, the less time they have available during emergencies when their services are really needed.

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If the objective is to make communities safer by encouraging citizens to drive safely, these steps to achieve compliance are decidedly easy to take. As I point out in Blue Bias, “If traffic safety can be improved by traffic fines, utilize digital photographic technology for apprehending offenders; you can mitigate the public pushback by giving adequate warnings before exacting a fine, and do not make failure to pay fines a jailable offense.” There is a profound political lesson about the power of well-connected citizens versus the citizens who live in cortisol canyons. The shrill sanctimonious outrage of the well-to-do citizens with a disregard for stopping at red lights offers an eye-opening discrepancy in the balance of power of rich versus poor neighborhoods. The bellicose belligerence in the complaints about having been ticketed via traffic cameras is something to behold.

When middle-class USA screams about being fined because of violations recorded on camera, watching local politicians run for cover while removing the cameras is as instructive as it is pathetic, because digital cameras really do change driving behavior: they really do make driving safer, which should be the objective, and digital cameras are not guilty of racial profiling. I suspect the bombastic rhetoric may be related to white privilege as it sounds like they are saying, “How dare you fine me every time I run a red light or speed?” Being ticketed for a traffic violation without digital technology happens so infrequently that people break the law routinely because the odds of being caught by a police officer are exceedingly small. But when the citizens of poor communities complain about overly aggressive policing for the purposes of raising revenue, typically, no one listens.

As I point out in Blue Bias, “For a neighborhood to be socially viable, physical and mental safety must exist as a sacred trust—making its members part of a genuine community, where shelter is ensured without reservation—because without emotional security, residents are not only psychologically homeless, they are existentially stressed and do not have the luxury of feeling safe.” Should the police go to any white, middle-class, affluent neighborhood and start stopping and frisking people at random, they are likely these days to find lots of opioids. They will also find themselves in court for harassment.

In nearly every community with a police presence, the officers know who the active criminals are, and focusing on these actors instead of raising municipal revenue is required to make these neighborhoods safe places to live. In Blue Bias, I argue that, “Equal justice under the law requires no view of ignorance; it requires instead that each citizen, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion or political persuasion, be treated with the respect and individual sovereignty that the United States Constitution provides, regardless of the community where they encounter officers of the law.

And if the blindfold is keeping our Lady of Justice from seeing this (because of the biases that are built into our laws and algorithms), maybe she does need to remove it. What we need is for community policing is a paradigm-level attitudinal shift in the approach of law enforcement officers, so officers hit the streets from day one having a much richer knowledge of how our minds work with relation to bias and how an educated perspective is vital to understand the tenet of just policing in a democratic society.”

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Charles D. Hayes

Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.