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Marketplace Morning Report

Ferguson operates police department as a profit center

Dan Weissmann Mar 5, 2015
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In addition to documenting stark racial disparities and shocking incidents in Ferguson, Missouri’s law-enforcement system, the Justice Department’s report finds that Ferguson operates its police department primarily as a money-making enterprise. But Ferguson is not the only place where law-enforcement practices may be more about money than public safety. 

In Ferguson, the idea that the police department operates as a revenue-maximizing business is the basic thesis of the Justice Department report. The city finance director emails the police chief asking for more ticket revenue. Cops say they get evaluated — and promoted — based on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations they issue. All this comes on page two. 

The report points to documents that show the revenue strategy at work.  In one email, the finance director pushes a traffic-enforcement initiative to, quote, “fill the revenue pipeline.” The clerk of the municipal court also gets emails about revenue targets. In an official report, the finance director boasts to the city council about how much higher fines are in Ferguson than in neighboring towns.

These tactics paid off. The city budgeted for— and realized— huge increases in revenue from tickets and fines. Those revenues more than doubled in the last five years, and in the latest budget they account for almost a quarter of the general fund revenue.

The phenomenon is not limited to Ferguson, although the strategies under which law enforcement collects revenue are not always the same. 

There’s been a lot of reporting on civil forfeiture cases— a mechanism under which cops can seize money and other assets from people who aren’t charged with crimes — and keep the money. The New Yorker and the Washington Post have both done extensive reports — as has HBO’s John Oliver.

“There’s no question that civil forfeiture falls most heavily on minorities and low-income folks,” says Scott Bullock, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. “And those folks are not only having their property taken, but they don’t have the resources to go about challenging it in court.”  

The Washington Post documented billions of dollars seized and spent by police nationwide. Los Angeles police bought a $5 million helicopter. The sheriff’s department in Amarillo, Texas bought a $637 coffee pot.

Other strategies abound, says Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project— and a lot of money gets collected, even if the public doesn’t always see “smoking-gun” documents like the ones in the Ferguson report.

“I think you’d have lots of smoking guns if the Department of Justice went around the country doing this,” he says.

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