Policing for Dollars

Some people are a little bit upset about the city of Albany’s decision to install red light cameras.

OK, perhaps I am understating a little bit. Many people—most, from my unscientific survey, though not all, white men—are apoplectic. Now, I am not actually going to take a position on the cameras. There’s contradictory research that I haven’t been able to assess, assertions that there better approaches to safety like longer yellows, and accusations that “glitches” in other places have sent out waves of inappropriate tickets. On the other hand, Albany’s red-light running problem is insane. And, as enforcement options go, at least cameras don’t look at your skin color before snapping a picture of your license plate.

But no matter your position on cameras, we do have to talk about revenue policing. If you haven’t yet, I recommend the Mother Jones article, “Police Shootings Won’t Stop Unless We Also Stop Shaking Down Black People,” which details how places like Ferguson, Mo., are balancing severely distressed municipal budgets on the backs of their black residents, actively pursuing fines and tickets for the smallest of infractions, then piling on punitive late fees. “In 2010, this collaboration between the Ferguson police and the courts generated $1.4 million in income for the city. This year, they will more than double that amount—$3.1 million—providing nearly a quarter of the city’s $13 million budget, almost all of it extracted from its poorest African American citizens.”

There are two parts to this problem that we have to talk about. One is the fiscal part of it. Why are municipalities, from Ferguson to Albany, reduced to revenue policing? I mean, in an ideal world we would have income-based, sliding-scale traffic tickets all of which would go into a special fund to reduce the car insurance rates and taxes of people who drive and park safely. Boom, traffic safety with no budget incentive to ticket where it isn’t warranted. But we can’t even entertain that right now. Why not?

Because we’ve let anti-tax, government-is-bad ideology hijack our brains and take over our governments. Because, as I have written about frequently, we’ve allowed a situation where the suburbs leech off their central cities, benefiting from and relying on our infrastructure, jobs, hospitals, universities, social services, cultural offerings, and housing and educating of the region’s lower-income families without contributing to any of it. Because we have allowed anti-urban (and in our case a particularly anti-Albany) state governments to destroy municipal and school aid formulas that made those regional imbalances a little less unfair. Because we kowtow to corporations who demand that we waive all their tax obligations before they build/locate in our jurisdiction, racing to the bottom for really lackluster actual results. So we’re running out of money to fulfill the basic services of government, and turning to police to do it.

(Confidential to libertarians: If you don’t like police states, perhaps relax on the knee-jerk anti-tax stance. You are feeding the police state.)

The second part of the problem is the fact that revenue policing is conducted within a racist society, in a racist way. As the Mother Jones article points out, Judge Brockmeyer in Ferguson, who was slammed in a Deparment of Justice report on the town, “owed $172,646 in back taxes, a sum orders of magnitude greater than any late fine coming before his bench. Even as he was jailing black ladies for parking tickets, Brockmeyer was allegedly erasing citations for white Ferguson residents who happened to be his friends.”

Who gets stopped, fined, beaten, and sometimes killed for broken taillights, being noisy at a pool, or not signaling when changing lanes? According to the numbers, it’s disproportionately Native Americans and African Americans. Force cops to raise their own salaries, and they are going to do it on the backs of people they identify with less, people they believe ought to be “submitting to their authority” and generally consider to need to be “taught a lesson.”

This combination does not explain every police killing for sure. Some of them are pure racism. All of them are exacerbated by the militarizing of our police forces. But revenue policing is a major, and perhaps increasing, contributing factor to why there are so damn many police interactions out there in the first place, a whole new theater for white supremacy to play out in.

We cannot address this horrible cocktail without fixing both the fiscal incentives and the racism. We need both Bernie Sanders’ economic platform (and some more urban and regional specific tax measures at state and local levels) and Black Lives Matters’ insistence that we immediately address the terrorizing of civilians by law enforcement.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Aug. 13, 2015.)

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