Cops are Cashiers for Municipalities. Can they Survive Without these ‘Profit Centers?’

Exploitative traffic fines and penalties are a major revenue stream for city governments across the nation. 

By David Icke Turner

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck

The national conversation of ‘defunding’ and ‘abolishing’ the police is a discussion laden with obstacles, contradictions, and even opportunity. Reimagining community policing and the enforcement of laws has brought to the surface a dozen more seemingly intractable issues. The slogans behind these movements are rooted in the right sentiment: we have been unable as a nation to stop law enforcement in this country from brutalizing and murdering the very people they have sworn to ‘serve and protect.’ 

Obviously, the status quo is untenable. Yet the discourse on the future of law is riddled with unanswered questions. If the police are abolished, who do I call when I get burglarized or assaulted? Who will investigate serious crimes? These indeed are the questions we are asking ourselves yet municipal governments have a whole other set of concerns. They are asking themselves how will they replace the crucial revenues derived from traffic citations.

In 2015, a national discussion emerged on excessive fines and fees after civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo. In addition to police brutality, citizens voiced anger with the area’s infamous municipal courts systems. The word was that St. Louis area municipalities prioritized bringing in revenues as opposed to police oversight or efficacy from their courts. 

Shortly after getting elected in the same year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s transition team referred to their Municipal Courts Department as a “profit center”. This was a veritable Freudian slip in a time when Houston faced a critical budget shortfall. And when city governments have a financial deficiency, they often double down on the quick fix of increasing traffic fees and fines. Poor people who navigate municipal court systems without legal representation often carry the burden of these municipal funding needs. 

These fines and fees have been characterized as the criminalization of poverty. Blacks pay more than their commensurate share of citations. And poor people make up more than half of revenues in many major cities. People already teetering on the brink of financial hardship have their problems exacerbated with predatory municipal fines. One traffic ticket could lead to multiple court dates which means missed work days. If traffic hearings are missed, that could mean more fines and/or jail time. And court costs. And bail. And so on. 

Dan Kopf / Priceonomics

According to a report by Governing, city revenues from traffic citations and fees can range from 10% to 50%. Fines and forfeitures make up more than 10 percent of “general fund revenues” for nearly 600 municipalities and jurisdictions. The report found “In at least 284 of those, the share exceeded 20 percent, the threshold set by Missouri in its post-Ferguson reforms. Another 80 governments reported even higher fines accounting for more than half of general revenues.”

Cities typically bring in the lion’s share of their revenue via property taxes. Property owners and renters all pay these fees in one way or another. But with ebbs and flows in local and national real estate markets, city budgeters often need a flexible medium in which to make up deltas in their projections. This translates to increased traffic stops and higher fines when a municipal government needs to cover a shortfall. Again, this is often shouldered by less affluent drivers who can’t afford to pay lawyers to get cases dismissed. 

In Montgomery, Alabama, police repeatedly ticketed 49-year-old Harriet Cleveland for driving without insurance and a license. She kept driving because she needed to drop her son off at school and go to work. Unable to pay the fines, she received two years’ probation. Judicial Correction Services then charged her $200 a month, including a $40 “supervision” fee. She couldn’t keep up with the fines, and accrued over $1,000 in private probation fees. After her two-year probation ended, she received a notice from the district attorney demanding nearly $3,000 in payment — far higher than the original fees. The DA had added a 30 percent collection fee. Afraid of arrest, she skipped court. Police later arrested her on a warrant and locked her up for a month, where she slept on the floor.

Sarah Stillman / The New Yorker

Local police departments are increasingly being activated to bring in revenue for municipalities by “imposing and collecting fees, fines, and asset forfeitures.”  In short, police officers are serving as cashiers for city governments. It is also a question whether these ‘revenue collection activities’ take bandwidth away from serious criminal investigations. 

A 2016 NYU study found that “ that police departments in cities that collect a greater share of their revenue from fees – conceivably because their governing bodies put pressure on them to generate revenue – solve violent crimes at significantly lower rates.” You read that correct — cities that with greater reliance on these fines have a lesser capacity to solve crime. 

Residents of major cities across the country pay a virtual tax in the form of fines and forfeitures on bonds. Some more than others. The per person average varies nationwide. According to Forbes “ From a high of $226.78 per person in Washington D.C. and $97.07 in Chicago to nothing at all in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Omaha, Nebraska; Raleigh, North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina; and Lincoln Nebraska. Charlotte, North Carolina came the closest to zero collections at $0.21 per capita.”

It’s hard to not look at those numbers and see that some cities have learned to operate their city budgets without heavily relying on traffic citations.  It seems such budgeting is the future of city planning in a world where police departments are not such a massive cog in the profit vs loss formula. In order for cities to move away from heavy handed police presence, they must get past their addictions to poor people’s municipal fines.

The inevitable appearance of autonomous vehicles and AI improvements to driver performance spells doom for city governments that are far too reliant on bilking the local population via traffic fines. The time to adapt now or face the moral and financial consequences sooner than you may think.

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