Petty Offenses and Police-Community Relations in Ferguson

Reading through this Newsweek article on the troubled relations between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo. before this month’s blowup, this passage jumped out at me: 

“Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400,” according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”

My first reaction – maybe yours too – was “is that a misprint?” Three arrest warrants per household in Ferguson last year?  

Now let’s stipulate that some of those warrants were written against out-of-towners, especially in matters arising from traffic offenses, tickets being a key revenue source for many municipalities in St. Louis’s North County. Yet here’s a second statistic some will find surprising: while reported property-crime rates in Ferguson have run well above the national average for years, violent-crime rates have not. After a high period that lasted through 2008, they have declined steadily to a point where last year Ferguson had about the same rate of violent crime as the nation generally. 

What seems clear at this point is that Ferguson – while in some ways a nicer and safer town than some have imagined – does suffer from a unusual degree of antagonism between police and residents, an antagonism that crucially involves race (the town is an extreme outlier in its now-famous extent of black underrepresentation in elected office) and yet has other vital dimensions as well. The town gets nearly a quarter of its municipal revenue from court fees – the figure in some neighboring towns is even higher – and according to the ArchCity Defenders report quoted in Newsweek, Ferguson’s municipal court is among the very worst in the way it adds its own hassle factor to the collection of petty fines:

ArchCity Defenders, which has tracked ticketing of St. Louis area residents for five years and focused primarily on vehicle violations, started a court-watching program because so many of its clients complained of traffic prosecution wreaking havoc on their lives. Defendants routinely alleged that a racially-motivated traffic stop led to their being jailed due to inability to pay traffic fines, which in turn prompted people to “los[e] jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration.” … One resident quoted in the study said, “It’s ridiculous how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the people who drive through the area.”

Racial antagonism between residents and law enforcement is bad no matter what, but it’s worse when residents wind up interacting constantly with law enforcement because of a culture of petty fines. (If you doubt that law enforcement in Ferguson has been touched by a culture of petty fines, read this Daily Beast account of how the town sought to charge a jail inmate for property damage for bleeding on its officers’ uniforms – even though the altercation with jailers arose after the town had picked up the wrong guy on a warrant issued on a common name.)

In recent years scholars and journalists have been developing a literature on how petty fines and low-level law enforcement can snowball into life-changing consequences for persons not by nature inclined toward criminality – recent entries include On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman (“web of warrants”) and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (“a devastating account of a legal system doing its job perfectly well”). Libertarians have participated actively in this literature, especially through the work of Radley Balko, and in June I brought together some links from Cato and Overlawyered in connection with a Cato podcast.

It seems so random and meaningless that a legal offense as minor as walking on the roadway would set in motion what was to prove the fatal confrontation between officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. But in the wider scheme of how Ferguson came to have its problem with policing, it may be neither random nor meaningless.