Ferguson Cops Relentlessly Preyed on Victims — But Things Are Changing
In our excerpts from The Ferguson Report, Part 1: Breathing While Black, and Other Offenses, we presented a number of shocking incidents that showed what African-Americans were subjected to every day by the Ferguson Police Department. These outrages were driven by racism at its rawest. But there was another dimension to this predatory behavior: Money. The more tickets the police wrote, the more money they earned for the city. And the more brownie points they earned for themselves. In Part 2 of this two-part series, we present excerpts that show — in appalling detail — how those in authority encouraged illegal predation, and even threatened punishment for police officers who preferred to play it straight. We also present a short happy report on some of the dramatic reforms that are taking place.
In our excerpts from The Ferguson Report, Part 1: Breathing While Black, and Other Offenses, we presented a number of appalling incidents that showed what African-Americans were subjected to every day by the Ferguson Police Department. This behavior was driven by racism at its rawest. But there was another dimension to this predatory behavior: Money. The more tickets the police wrote, the more money they earned for the city. And the more brownie points they earned for themselves.
And the poor got poorer.
In the comments above, we use the past tense. We do not know how much of this sort of thing is still going on. We do know that Ferguson is going through the paroxysms of dramatic transition.
Thanks to The Ferguson Report, many reforms are in the works, and some have already taken place. For example, the lowered cap on revenue from traffic tickets: It can now make up only 12.5 percent of a city’s operating revenue in St. Louis County — down from the previously permitted 30 percent.
Other reforms include the replacement of the city manager, the police chief, and the municipal judge. This new judge, Donald McCullin — an African-American — recently revealed a plan to withdraw all arrest warrants issued before December 31, 2015. About 10,000 people will be affected. Those who had been arrested will receive new court dates, new pretrial options, or other options, such as payment plans or community service. And suspended licenses will be reinstated if they resulted from a failure to appear in court or a failure to pay a fine.
Judge McCullin said that the “changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start.”
Many deep-rooted and systemic problems remain. And many new ones will be created by these chaotic changes, some anticipated, some not. More adjustments will have to be made. Its a matter of breaking many eggs to make an omelet. A study group for the Missouri Supreme Court is contemplating additional areas of reform. They say they will release a final report on December 1, 2015.
The selections below have been edited and compressed to fit space requirements.
EXCERPTS FROM THE FERGUSON REPORT
City, police, and court officials for years have worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process, beginning with how fines and fine enforcement processes are established. In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director, with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on “efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection” by the municipal court.
FPD officers routinely issue multiple citations during a single stop, often for the same violation. Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon in Ferguson. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter. Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.
The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are “at or near the top of the list.”
More Tickets, Higher Fines
The chart noted, for example, that while other municipalities’ parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson’s is $102.
The chart also observed that the charge for “Weeds/Tall Grass” was as little as $5 in one city, but in Ferguson it ranged from $77 to $102.
Along with its high fine schedule, the City directs FPD to aggressively enforce the municipal code. City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget.
In an email from March 2010, the Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that
“unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”
More Ticket-Writers on the Street
Chief Jackson responded that the City would see an increase in fines once more officers were hired and that he could target the $1.5 million forecast. Significantly, Chief Jackson stated that he was also “looking at different shift schedules which will place more officers on the street, which in turn will increase traffic enforcement per shift.”
Shortly thereafter, FPD switched to the 12-hour shift schedule for its patrol officers, which FPD continues to use. Law enforcement experience has shown that this schedule makes community policing more difficult — a concern that we have also heard directly from FPD officers.
Nonetheless, while FPD heavily considered the revenue implications of the 12-hour shift and certain other factors, such as its impact on overtime and sick time usage, we have found no evidence that FPD considered the consequences for positive community engagement.
The City’s 2014 budget report itself stated that since December 2010, “the percent of [FPD] resources allocated to traffic enforcement has increased,” and “[a]s a result, traffic enforcement related collections increased” in the following two years.
FPD has communicated to officers not only that they must focus on bringing in revenue, but that the department has little concern with how officers do this. FPD’s weak systems of supervision, review, and accountability, discussed below in Part III.A., have sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be “productive” in making arrests and writing citations.
The 2015 budget report added that even after those initial increases FPD in fiscal year 2012–2013 was once again “successful in increasing their proportion of resources dedicated to traffic enforcement” and increasing collections.
As directed, FPD supervisors and line officers have undertaken the aggressive code enforcement required to meet the City’s revenue generation expectations.
Competition! Who Can Issue the Most Citations for a Single Stop?
FPD officers routinely issue multiple citations during a single stop, often for the same violation. Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon in Ferguson. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.
Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.
The February 2011 report to the City Council notes that the acting prosecutor — with the apparent approval of the Police Chief — “talked with police officers about ensuring all necessary summonses are written for each incident, i.e. when DWI charges are issued, are the correct companion charges being issued, such as speeding, failure to maintain a single lane, no insurance, and no seat belt, etc.”
The prosecutor noted that “[t]his is done to ensure that a proper resolution to all cases is being achieved and that the court is maintaining the correct volume for offenses occurring within the city.”
Notably, the “correct volume” of law enforcement is uniformly presented in City documents as related to revenue generation, rather than in terms of what is necessary to promote public safety.
Each month, the municipal court provides FPD supervisors with a list of the number of tickets issued by each officer and each squad. Supervisors have posted the list inside the police station, a tactic officers say is meant to push them to write more citations.
Rewards for Issuing Citations, Regardless of Legality
Patrol Division supervisors monitor productivity through monthly “self-initiated activity reports” and instruct officers to increase production when those reports show they have not issued enough citations. In April 2010, for example, a patrol supervisor criticized a sergeant for his squad issuing a mere 25 tickets in a month.
In November 2011, the same patrol supervisor wrote to his patrol lieutenants and sergeants that “[t]he monthly self-initiated activity totals just came out,” and they “may want to advise [their] officers who may be interested in the open detective position that one of the categories to be considered when deciding on the eligibility list will be self-initiated activity.”
The supervisor continued: “Have any of you heard comments such as, why should I produce when I know I’m not getting a raise? Well, some people are about to find out why.”
The email concludes with the instruction to “[k]eep in mind, productivity (self- initiated activity) cannot decline for next year.”
FPD has communicated to officers not only that they must focus on bringing in revenue, but that the department has little concern with how officers do this.
FPD’s weak systems of supervision, review, and accountability, discussed below in Part III.A., have sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be “productive” in making arrests and writing citations.
Punishments for Not Being “Productive”
Where officers fail to meet productivity goals, supervisors have been instructed to alter officer assignments or impose discipline. In August 2012, the Captain of the Patrol Division instructed other patrol supervisors that, “[f]or those officers who are not keeping up an acceptable level of productivity and they have already been addressed at least once if not multiple times, take it to the next level.”
He continued: “As we have discussed already, regardless of the seniority and experience, take the officer out of the cover car position and assign them to prisoner pick up and bank runs … Failure to perform can result in disciplinary action, not just a bad evaluation.”
Performance evaluations also heavily emphasize productivity. A June 2013 evaluation indicates one of the “Performance-Related Areas of Improvements” as “Increase/consistent in productivity, the ability to maintain an average ticket [sic] of 28 per month.”
Getting Blood from a Turnip
Not all officers within FPD agree with this approach. Several officers commented on the futility of imposing mounting penalties on people who will never be able to afford them. One member of FPD’s command staff quoted an old adage, asking: “How can you get blood from a turnip?”
Another questioned why FPD did not allow residents to use their limited resources to fix equipment violations, such as broken headlights, rather than paying that money to the City, as fixing the equipment violation would more directly benefit public safety.
However, enough officers at all ranks have internalized this message that a culture of reflexive enforcement action — unconcerned with whether the police action actually promotes public safety and unconcerned with the impact the decision has on individual lives or on community trust as a whole — has taken hold within FPD.
One commander told us, for example, that when he admonished an officer for writing too many tickets, the officer challenged the commander, asking if the commander was telling him not to do his job.
When another commander tried to discipline an officer for over-ticketing, he got the same response from the Chief of Police: “No discipline for doing your job.”
In one March 2012 email, the Captain of the Patrol Division reported directly to the City Manager that court collections in February 2012 reached $235,000 and that this was the first month that collections ever exceeded $200,000.
The Captain noted that “[t]he [court clerk] girls have been swamped all day with a line of people paying off fines today. Since 9:30 this morning there hasn’t been less than 5 people waiting in line and for the last three hours 10 to 15 people at all times.” The City Manager enthusiastically reported the Captain’s email to the City Council and congratulated both police department and court staff on their “great work.”
Even as officers have answered the call for greater revenue through code enforcement, the City continues to urge the police department to bring in more money. In a March 2013 email, the Finance Director wrote: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”
Even more recently, the City’s Finance Director stated publicly that Ferguson intends to make up a 2014 revenue shortfall in 2015 through municipal code enforcement, stating to Bloomberg News that “[t]here’s about a million-dollar increase in public-safety fines to make up the difference.”
The City issued a statement to “refute” the Bloomberg article in part because it “insinuates” an “over reliance on municipal court fines as a primary source of revenues when in fact they represented less than 12% of city revenues for the last fiscal year.”
But there is no dispute that the City budget does, in fact, forecast an increase of nearly a million dollars in municipal code enforcement fines and fees in 2015 as reported in the Bloomberg News report.
The City goes so far as to direct FPD to develop enforcement strategies and initiatives — not to better protect the public, but to raise more revenue. In an April 2014 communication to Chief Jackson and the City Manager, the Finance Director recommended immediate implementation of an “I-270 traffic enforcement initiative” in order to “begin to fill the revenue pipeline.”
The Finance Director’s email attached a computation of the net revenues that would be generated by the initiative, which required paying five officers overtime for highway traffic enforcement for a four-hour shift.
The Finance Director stated that “there is nothing to keep us from running this initiative 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or even 7 days a week. Admittedly at 7 days per week, we would see diminishing returns.” Indeed, in a separate email to FPD supervisors, the Patrol Captain explained that “[t]he plan behind this [initiative] is to PRODUCE traffic tickets, not provide easy OT.”
There is no indication that anyone considered whether community policing and public safety would be better served by devoting five overtime officers to neighborhood policing instead of having them provide a “revenue pipeline” from highway traffic enforcement.
Priority of the Court: Make Money
The City has made clear to the Police Chief and the Municipal Judge that revenue generation must also be a priority in court operations. The Finance Director’s February 2011 report to the City Council noting that “Judge Brockmeyer was first appointed in 2003, and during this time has been successful in significantly increasing court collections over the years.” The report includes a list of “what he has done to help in the areas of court efficiency and revenue.”
The list, drafted by Judge Brockmeyer, approvingly highlights the creation of additional fees, many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful, including several that the City has repealed during the pendency of our investigation.
These include a $50 fee charged each time a person has a pending municipal arrest warrant cleared and a “failure to appear fine,” which the Judge noted is “increased each time the Defendant fails to appear in court or pay a fine.”
The Judge also pointed to the rise in fines for repeat offenders, “especially in regard to housing violations, [which] have increased substantially and will continue to be increased upon subsequent violations.”
The February 2011 report includes Judge Brockmeyer’s statement that “none of these changes could have taken place without the cooperation of the Court Clerk, the Chief of Police, and the Prosecutor’s Office.” Indeed, the acting prosecutor commented in the report, “I have denied defendants’ needless requests for continuance from the payment docket in an effort to aid in the court’s efficient collection of its fines.”
“We need to keep up our revenue.”
Court staff are keenly aware that the City considers revenue generation to be the municipal court’s primary purpose. Revenue targets for court fines and fees are created in consultation not only with Chief Jackson, but also the Court Clerk. In one April 2010 exchange with Chief Jackson entitled “2011 Budget,” for example, the Finance Director sought and received confirmation that the Police Chief and the Court Clerk would prepare targets for the court’s fine and fee collections for subsequent years.
Court staff take steps to ensure those targets are met in operating the court. For example, in April 2011 the Court Clerk wrote to Judge Brockmeyer (copying Chief Jackson) that the fines the new Prosecuting Attorney was recommending were not high enough. The Clerk highlighted one case involving three Derelict Vehicle charges and a Failure to Comply charge that resulted in $76 in fines, noting that this “normally would have brought a fine of all three charges around $400.” After describing another case that she believed warranted higher fines, the Clerk concluded: “We need to keep up our revenue.” There is no indication that ability to pay or public safety goals were considered.
The City has been aware for years of concerns about the impact its focus on revenue has had on lawful police action and the fair administration of justice in Ferguson. It has disregarded those concerns — even the ones raised from within the City government — to avoid disturbing the court’s ability to optimize revenue generation.
In 2012, a Ferguson City Council member wrote to other City officials in opposition to Judge Brockmeyer’s reappointment, asserting that “[the Judge] does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn’t let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict.”
The Council member then addressed the concern that “switching judges would/could lead to loss of revenue,” arguing that even if such a switch did “lead to a slight loss, I think it’s more important that cases are being handled properly and fairly.”
The City Manager acknowledged the mixed reviews that the Judge’s work had received but urged that the Judge be reappointed: “It goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Indict The System (Chris West / Flickr)