By now you’ve probably seen the numbers, numbers that give us some idea why the killing of Michael Brown touched off such an emotional response in the town of Ferguson, Ill., a town that is 67 percent black but until quite recently was patrolled with a police force that had one black officer.
According to a Justice Department investigation:
— 85 percent of those stopped by Ferguson police between 2012 and 2014 were African American.
— 90 percent of citations issued were issued to African-Americans.
— 93 percent of those arrested were African-American.
— 88 percent of use-of-force cases by police officers occurred against African Americans.
— 100 percent of those bitten by Ferguson police dogs were African American.
— Black Americans were 68 percent less likely to have their cases dismissed in Ferguson municipal court.
— 96 percent of those stopped in a traffic stop and arrested for outstanding warrants were African American.
— 95 percent of those held in the Ferguson jail longer than two days were African American.
— 95 percent of “Walking in Roadway” charges — the circumstances that led to Brown’s confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson — were filed against African Americans.
— 94 percent of “Failure to Comply” charges were filed against African Americans.
— 92 percent of disturbing the peace charges were filed against African Americans.
— Black drivers were twice as likely to be searched for guns or drugs, yet were less likely than white drivers to be found with such contraband.
In addition, the Justice Department investigation uncovered multiple examples of racist emails sent back and forth among Ferguson police and court officials, including police commanders and court supervisors. Examples cited include an October 2011 e-mail that “included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”
The emails themselves are damning enough. The fact that those operating within the internal culture of Ferguson’s city government felt free to send them, without apparent fear of repercussions, is even more damning.
And then there’s the fact that Ferguson “acts less like a municipality and more like a self-perpetuating business enterprise, extracting money from poor blacks that it uses as revenue to sustain the city’s budget,” as the New York Times puts it:
“The efficiency of Ferguson’s system was as striking in the report as the bluntness with which officials acknowledged it.
‘Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections,” wrote the city’s finance director to the Ferguson police chief in March 2010. “What are your thoughts?”
Three years later, the finance director wrote to the city manager, saying that he had asked “the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”
The revenue-generating enterprise described in the report begins with the police, who, under pressure to “fill the revenue pipeline,” compete with one another to see how many citations they can issue in a single traffic stop. Those cited are then summoned before a court to face fines that city officials boast are among the highest in the region, with hundreds of dollars levied for such violations as “peace disturbance,” “failure to comply” and “manner of walking.” For all three violations, more than nine out of 10 of those cited were black.”
Given those attitudes and circumstances — a policing model driven by revenue, not by justice, imposed on a black community by an almost exclusively white bureaucracy that was at the very least tolerant of casual expressions of racism — it’s easy to see how Ferguson might become a resentful tinderbox awaiting a spark, a spark that came when Officer Darren Wilson confronted Brown over allegedly walking in the street.
It’s also hard to ignore the disturbing parallels between Ferguson’s revenue-driven policing model and Georgia’s scandalous, largely privatized misdemeanor probation that treats poor misdemeanor offenders as a major profit center.
“Misdemeanor probation companies have grown and prospered across Georgia because city and county courts require so many people to use probation services. Tens of thousands of low-income people who can’t afford traffic fines end up on probation, along with people guilty of higher-level misdemeanors: DUIs, shoplifting, possession of marijuana and some domestic violence charges.
As a result, Georgia reported the nation’s largest probation population at the end of 2013, with 514,000 cases. More than 300,000 of those were misdemeanors cases…
The AJC found that some probation companies have convinced local courts to authorize a buffet of questionable charges that go way beyond the monthly supervision fee.
Some courts allow “orientation” and “set-up” fees of $25 or more. There are picture fees ranging from $2 to $15, while “insurance” fees associated with a week of community service work often add another $15 to the tab. Drug-screening fees are part of the fee schedule too, with some judges allowing $15 charges and others authorizing $25.”
As an example of the impact, Teegardin cites the case of a single mother on disability who got hit with a $920 fine for speeding and failure to have insurance. When the woman explained in court that she was too poor to pay, she was put on probation with a private company, and the cash register started ringing:
“The probation charges included an administrative fee ($50), picture fee ($15), 12 months of probation fees ($35 a month) and the state’s crime victim fee ($9 a month). She was even hit with a drug test fee on a case that had nothing to do with alcohol or drugs. That added another $25. The total cost? Over $1,500.
“I already thought the fine was a lot — over $900 for the two tickets and they were just traffic citations,” said Hutcheson, who lives in Darien. “It ended up being so much more.”
Threatened with arrest if she didn’t pay, she was able to hand over $640. She got no relief from a formal complaint, but a local judge agreed to dismiss her case in January after widespread problems at the probation company came to light.”
You hear a lot of complaining and whining about government repression these days, and most of it is vastly overblown. Almost none of it compares in scale or impact to the systematic repression and economic exploitation perpetrated in these cases by government against those already without the means, knowledge or power to complain effectively.
And most of the time, those of us lucky enough to escape those categories don’t even know that it exists.