Saturday, March 7, 2015

Symptoms of a Greater Illness

"But what the material in the report reveals is less a culture of racial animus than one of predatory government: 'Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” states the report, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.'” The Injustice the DOJ Uncovered In Ferguson Wasn't Racism, Ian Tuttle, National Review, 2015

Everyone of a certain age watched, and giggled at, the first appearance of Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith), the slow-talking, affable sheriff of small town Mayberry, North Carolina. He had arrested Danny Thomas for running a stop sign. Protesting his innocence, Thomas demanded to see a judge. Andy flipped over his "Sheriff" desk sign and became "Justice of the Peace" Taylor. Defeated, Thomas paid his fine.

The point was to make Thomas, an upstanding and affluent city dweller, the butt of a joke. Ha ha ha, welcome to small town justice, where government coffers are fed by unsuspecting out-of-towners with more money than sense. 

The recently-released Department of Justice report on the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, MO, makes several points. First, that Officer Wilson was justified in his use of force. However, the Ferguson Police Department comes under harsh scrutiny for the practice of using ticket writing not as a means of improving citizen safety, but to generate revenue for city operations. If a "ticket a day keeps the sergeant away" then several...or several dozen...keep the finance department happy.

It is an easy practice to justify, its roots firmly planted in a 1967 Commission reporting on law enforcement. Then, it was common for officers to "coop," that is to gather for long periods of time, take turns sleeping and otherwise ignore the needs of their community. The Commission recommended, among other things, that officers be evaluated based (in part) on how productive they were. Measured, of course, with tickets and arrests.

One need not look very far to find someone in government lamenting their lot in life as it relates to citizen expectations. "The people," officials often growl, "can't afford the government they say they want." Citizens expect - reasonably so - that they have supplied sufficient resources to local police, fire and community services. The efficient use of those resources is up to public sector employees. And you know how "wasteful" they are....

At the same time, no one likes a tax increase even as the cost of doing the public's business soars. Government employees are expensive. The average police officer along Colorado's Front Range begins their career making around 40 thousand dollars a year. Within five years that has nearly doubled. Police cars are now sophisticated mobile offices - in 1979 the interior of my police car contained a radio with four channels, and a "unitrol" that controlled the overhead lights. Suspects rode to jail in the front seat. Today, a radio with hundreds of channels, a mobile data terminal, multiple selectors for a variety of light patterns and a "pod" rear seat designed to safely transport all manner of arrestees. None of this is cheap. It is said that the way to increase the cost of anything is to paint it black and stencil "Police" on it.

Reducing services is rarely an option, nor is raising taxes. That leaves....

Photo radar. Red light cameras. An emphasis, sometimes (as seems the case in Ferguson) from the upper reaches of government, on writing tickets to citizens not because the act increases overall public safety but to enter into a new, utterly coercive relationship with the defendant. Pay up, or else people with guns will come looking for you.

All this is not to say that tickets, arrests, fines and the like have no place in the array of tools available to officers. In fact, targeted enforcement meant to deter certain criminal acts has proven effective time and again. Traffic officers will tell you that within the Three E's (engineering, education and enforcement) they can make a significant contribution being visible, affable and when necessary, professionally deliver a summons.

But, divorcing productivity from serving the public safety needs of the community and handing it over to a system designed to maximize revenue generation? Ferguson is a cautionary tale to those who have lost sight of the people at the receiving end of "productivity." Mr. Tuttle's column, and the report he summarizes, point out that affluent Americans pay the fine, grumble at the inequity (all the while losing respect for law enforcement) and move on with their lives. Those of lesser means often must choose between paying the city or feeding their family...or jail.

Parked in the downtown area of a nearby city, having lunch with my daughter, I returned to my car to find a ticket. There was still fifteen minutes on the meter. The summons, courtesy of a "Parking Enforcement" employee, demanded $35 dollars because my vehicle had no front license plate. It had been stripped off several days before in an accident. Why is a front plate a big deal (some states don't require them, although Colorado does)? Photo radar.

Recently, Breckenridge CO began a program of advising citizens where targeted enforcement was occurring. “What we’re really after is just to make the town safer,” Assistant Chief Dennis McLaughlin said. “That’s our job and there’s no secret to it.”

Ferguson - and many other departments throughout the country - might heed those simple words.


  1. Could you fight it, Jim? If you requested a new plate or it was due to an accident, it makes sense you should have some time to get it replaced. CA's DMV is notoriously slow. In a perfect world, our living expenses wouldn't increase, making it possible to pay our public services a decent salary without the populace having to give and arm and a leg for it.

  2. By the time I spent hours in court waiting with little chance of winning.... That is what the nickel and dime fine schedules anticipate. My response was to bring my lunch every week I met my daughter until I calculated that, between Katy and I, we had recaptured the amount of sales tax I would have paid had we gone to the Rio. A small but meaningful victory.