Aggressive policing from scrounging for money for fines
Eric Markowitz reports in the New Yorker:
On September 4, 2014, Levar Jones pulled into a gas station near Columbia, South Carolina, where he lives. It was late afternoon, around 5 p.m., and he had just stepped out of his car when a state trooper named Sean Groubert pulled up behind him and asked to see his license. Jones turned to retrieve his identification from the car, and, at that moment, Groubert pulled out his gun and rushed over to Jones. Dash-cam footage released later by officials shows Groubert shouting, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!” As Jones turned around, Groubert fired four rounds, striking Jones once in the hip. Jones, who was unarmed, stumbled to the ground.
“I just got my license,” he says. “You said get my license!”
Groubert then tells Jones to put his hands behind his back.
“What did I do, sir?” Jones says.
Jones is black, which is not surprising given federal statistics showing that black drivers are about thirty-one per cent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. In some cities, traffic stops seem to be racially predetermined. In a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department that was prepared by the Department of Justice and released this week, officials noted that “African Americans almost certainly comprise less than 60 percent of Baltimore drivers, but account for 82 percent of BPD’s traffic stops.”
Jones was lucky. He was shot once in the hip and recovered, then later won a $285,000 settlement from the state. Groubert pled guilty to assault and battery on March 14, 2016. His sentencing hearing has not yet been set; he faces as much as twenty years in prison. But, as became all too clear this summer when Philando Castile was shot and killed in his car while reaching for his identification, seemingly ordinary interactions between police and civilians can turn violent, and even deadly.
Which raises some questions: Are police making too many stops for minor issues, and could the number of violent confrontations between police and civilians be reduced by reducing the number of confrontations over all?
In Baltimore, the Justice Department found that unnecessary—and often unconstitutional—stops and searches, as well as arrests for minor offenses, were made as part of the city’s zero-tolerance enforcement strategy. There is likely another reason for excessive stops in many places, which may have more to do with money.
Alexes Harris is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of “A Pound of Flesh.” Published in June, the book analyzes the rise of monetary sanctions in the criminal-justice system. Harris argues that jurisdictions have increasingly relied on levying fines for minor infractions—broken tail-lights, vagrancy, traffic violations—as a way to generate municipal revenue. For instance, a Department of Justice investigation revealedthat, in 2013, police in Ferguson, Missouri, issued arrest warrants for nine thousand people, almost all for municipal-code violations such as failing to pay a fine or missing court appearances. Doing so allowed the city to collect $2.4 million in fines and fees, the second highest source of income for the city, behind taxes.
Revenue-generation policies trap poor people in a cycle of debt, but Harris argues that these policies can also create dangerous conditions for violent confrontations with law-enforcement officers. Philando Castile, for instance, had been pulled over forty-six times in fourteen years, and had “racked up more than $6,000 in fines,” according to NPR, before he was pulled over for a minor violation and shot by a police officer, on July 6th.
“Philando Castile was killed for the broken tail-light,” Harris said. “Mike Brown was killed for the manner in which he was walking down the roadway. Eric Garner was killed for city-code violations for selling cigarettes. Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, was killed for allegedly possessing a switchblade.” She added, “All of these killings, the initial interaction was for ticky-tack fines and fees that gave the police excuses to stop these young men in the street.”
Harris says that economic forces have created one of the underlying tensions of modern-day policing: impoverished communities have become deeply distrustful of police, in part because they have come to expect an interaction with an officer to result in some sort of monetary punishment. “When you know that you’re constantly being surveilled for fines and fees, and you’re constantly going to be stopped, police are not going to be seen as legitimate anymore,” Harris says. “So it increases the tension between police and communities of color.”
That tension, fuelled by fears of being locked up for not being able to make payments, was evident in the case of Walter Scott, who was gunned down by a white police officer on April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina. The officer, Michael Slager (who has been indicted by a federal grand jury), pulled Scott over for a non-functioning brake light. Scott’s family speculated to the New York Times that he decided to run from the officer in large part because he owed $18,000 in court fines and lapsed child-support payments.
Alec Karakatsanis, a former public defender and a co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights group, says the Walter Scott case is hardly an outlier. In July, Karakatsanis helped win a $4.7-million settlement against the city of Jennings, Missouri, to compensate nearly two thousand residents who had been jailed simply because they were unable to pay their court bills.
The US is really showing some third-world tendencies.