Ferguson’s exploitive policing came with an all too common motive

Nor should it cost you a ticket, a summons, a court appearance, a lawyer’s fee…
Nor should it cost you a ticket, a summons, a court appearance, a lawyer’s fee…
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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The Department of Justice’s report on its investigation of the Ferguson, Mo. Police Department debunked one of the nation’s most popular policing philosophies, and hardly anyone noticed.

It seems much of the media was too caught up by the report’s salacious details to take note of the questions it raises around the policing theory cops there likely used to justify their heinous actions.

“Broken Windows” is the term used to describe the theory that says that by aggressively policing minor offenses, police departments can discourage larger ones. The policing model that result from the Broken Windows theory is characterized by a zero-tolerance approach to the even the smallest offenses. Police stops, summonses, and arrests all increase as a result of it.

It’s likely that some police departments adopt Broken Windows tactics because they fit the worldview and general outlook on policing of those in charge. But analysis after analysis has borne out that there’s no direct correlation between Broken Windows and crime reduction. So one highly plausible reason for it’s continued deployment is the amount of money local governments can rake by practicing it.

The recent Justice discovery of a pattern of for-profit ticketing in Ferguson shows in heartrending detail how a community can be ransacked, subjugated and torn apart by profit-driven Broken Windows tactics.

In Ferguson, revenue from criminal fines and forfeitures nearly tripled over the past 10 years and is projected to make up nearly a quarter of the city’s general fund in 2015–to the tune of $3 million. In its investigation, Justice found that blacks were twice as likely than whites to receive fines in Ferguson, and that officers would sometimes, “compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.” Aside from the Justice’s ongoing interest in Ferguson, the suburb is one of two in Missouri being sued by residents for a practice of excessive ticketing that they allege created modern-day debtors’ prisons for the purpose of raise revenue.

Still, Ferguson has competition for America’s most infamous Broken Windows marauders.

The New York City Police Department’s Stop and Frisk program is perhaps America’s marquee application of the Broken Windows theory. For many years under the policy, NYPD officers routinely and disproportionately stopped, issued summonses, and arrested black and Latino New Yorkers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union conducted a comprehensive analysis last year of Stop and Frisk during the 12 years Michael Bloomberg was mayor. It found officers made more than 5 million stops during that time with a more than 40% being of young men of color, even though they made up just 5% of the city’s population. David F. Greenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University studied the city’s crime rates during the same period and concluded that there was, “no evidence that misdemeanor arrests reduced levels of homicide, robbery, or aggravated assaults.”

Thankfully, Floyd v. the City of New York successfully challenged the NYPD’s use of Stop and Frisk as unconstitutional racial profiling. And it was during the Floyd trial that we learned the practice of Stop and Frisk was driven by illegal quotas dictated from the top of the NYPD, not crime trends.

One officer testified that he was threatened with firing if he didn’t log at least five stops, make one arrest and write 20 tickets each month. A secret recording made by that officer during his daily roll call was played in court. In it, one supervisor can be heard telling the officers to stop “the right people at the right time in the right location.” Another clarifies, “male blacks 14 to 20.”

Since Floyd, more than a dozen NYPD officers have joined in a class action lawsuit against the city, alleging they were denied overtime and vacation and threatened with and firing if they didn’t meet arbitrary quotas.

Arguably, the most illustrative example of the too-close connection between Broken Windows and city budgets is the recent NYPD work stoppage.

In a moment of tension late last year between the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, officers informally stopped making arrests and issuing summonses for minor infractions. Pundits speculated that it was a threat coordinated by the head of the police union to show the city what would happen if Broken Windows policing were to stop. Over a period of weeks, the rate of arrests fell by 56% year-to-year. Summonses were down by around 90%. Curiously, the city didn’t fall into lawlessness. What did result, however, was a $10 mil decline in revenue every week of the stoppage. More cynical pundits suggested that was the real threat.

To be sure, fines have a place as a penalty in the American criminal justice system. With measure, they can be used to effectively deter crime while raising revenue for cities that have a costly responsibility to operate police departments and courts, and I’m sure most would agree that a fine beats jail time any day. As we’ve seen recently in Ferguson, however, they outlive their utility when imposed with a focus on supporting city budgets.

Profit motives can and must be removed from policing

In Ferguson, the DOJ has made commonsense recommendations, including the prohibition of formal and informal arrest and ticket quotas–a measure that should adopted in every municipality across the country. Recently, Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver announced the introduction of The Fair Justice Act, which seeks criminalize profit-driven enforcement of criminal or traffic laws by making it a civil rights violation, punishable by up to five years in prison.

“The time has come to end the practice of using law enforcement as a cash register, a practice that has impacted too many Americans and has disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities,” said Cleaver in his statement to announce the bill. He continued, “No American should have to face arbitrary police enforcement, the sole purpose of which is to raise revenue for a town, city, or state.”

It’s clear in everything we’ve seen in Ferguson and New York that Broken Windows policing is bad policy. Aside from turning our nation’s peace officers into hall monitors, it encourages them to act as pirates who to shake down our society’s most vulnerable like low-hanging fruit to fill city coffers. As we turn toward police reform in the coming months, we can only hope that our nation’s leaders look beyond Ferguson and it’s problems to the flawed approaches to crime that nurtured them.