Years before Ferguson, Missouri became famous for the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the City's finances were in trouble, and the Finance Director had a proposal to help fill the gaps.
The Finance Director's proposal, as Priceonomics reports, was to have the police generate more revenues from fines (eg: traffic violations, parking tickets, missing court appearances), warning that the city would be in financial trouble "unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year." The Finance Director went on to add that "given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it's not an insignificant issue."
This correspondence was uncovered as part of the US Department of Justice's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department as a result of the Michael Brown shooting in August 2014 with the goal of better understanding why the citizens of Ferguson felt so at odds with the police department.
The DOJ concluded that the mistrust primarily resulted of excessive fining. "Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs" the DOJ report stated. Adding that the use of fines to fund the government undermined "law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular"
To find out whether or not Ferguson is an anomaly, Priceonomics investigated the proportion of revenues that cities typically receive from fines, as well as the characteristics of cities that rely on fines the most.
Here is what was found:
We found one demographic that was most characteristic of cities that levy large amounts of fines on their citizens: a large African American population. Among the fifty cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, the median size of the African American population—on a percentage basis—is more than five times greater than the national median.
Surprisingly, we found that income had very little connection to cities’ reliance on fines as a revenue source. Municipalities that are overwhelming White and non-Hispanic do not exhibit as much excessive fining, even if they are poor.
Our analysis indicates that the use of fines as a source of revenue is not a socioeconomic problem, but a racial one. The cities most likely to exploit residents for fine revenue are those with the most African Americans.
The following chart shows the relationship between the % of revenues from fines and forfeitures and the proportion of the population that is African-American.
This chart shows that poverty rates really don't play a factor in the % of revenues that come from fines.
In looking at a regression, Priceonomics admits that while there is a correlation between African-American population and the % of revenues from fines for municipalities, it is not fully explained by just a strong African-American population. However, some outliers can be seen for some Southern states.
Of the top 100 municipalities in terms of revenues from fines, more than two thirds are in just six states: Texas (19), Georgia (17), Missouri (12), Illinois (9), Maryland (9), and New York (6). Priceonomics contends that the Southern states, where the African American population is largest on a percentage basis, are over represented on the list.
Here is the top 50 (click here for full list)
Priceonomics concludes that it seems unlikely that the connection between fines and African American populations is the result of African Americans across the US committing more finable offenses, rather that African Americans are being policed more - said otherwise, it is a racial issue.
It seems unlikely that the connection between fines and large African American populations—a connection that cannot be explained by poverty—is the result of African Americans across the United States committing more finable offenses.
A more likely explanation is that they are more highly policed and that, as has been acknowledged by the Director of the FBI, African Americans suffer from heavier legal penalties due to the implicit bias of police officers.
Charging individuals with minor infractions is highly discretionary and influenced by where law enforcement choose to direct their attention. Although African Americans and Whites report smoking marijuana at the same rates, African Americans are 3.7 times more likely get arrested for marijuana possession.
Other research shows that while African Americans are less likely to sell drugs than Whites, they are more likely to be arrested for it. An analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 6.6% of White people between the ages of 12 and 25 have sold drugs compared to 5.0% of Blacks. Yet Black people are 3.6 times more likely get arrested for selling drugs.
Given this evidence, it seems likely that police officers often fine African Americans at higher rates, even if Black people do not commit more infractions.
In its report on Ferguson, the DOJ provided examples of the suffering caused by the police treating people as "potential offenders and sources of revenue" rather than citizens to protect.
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While nobody will be surprised by the fact that the police state largely views citizens as sources of revenue instead of those to serve and protect, we'll leave it up to our readers to determine whether or not Priceonomics has made its case that those fines generating said revenue are indeed largely racially driven.