How the Big Business of Writing Traffic Tickets is Destroying Many Communities (and Creating Riots)
This is the second in a two-part series.
Yesterday, I wrote a first-hand account about the seemingly benign personal experience of being ticketed for multiple traffic violations in various parts of the country, while released with just a warning in the state of Nevada, where I currently reside. The point seemed abundantly clear — cops have discretionary power and do make certain judgments about those they detain and prospectively cite for violations. Most of you who have gotten out of traffic tickets at one time or another will likely agree.
In today’s article, I’ll dig deeper and expose the big business of issuing traffic tickets, and explain how many localities seem to have pretty much abandoned that once valiant motto of civic responsibility, “to protect and to serve.” Now, the purpose of many police departments apparently is, “to harass and shakedown.” Indeed, cops have become the strong arm of sanctioning local municipalities guilty of what amounts to legalized extortion. This harsh reality is especially devastating for many poor people. The consequences of gross institutionalized injustice and inconsistency in the way punishments are given — not merely evidenced by widespread police misdeeds and legal verdicts in courts of law, but the far more endemic everyday bias of relatively minor infractions such as traffic stops — leads to greater mistrust of law enforcement and eventually even the breakdown society, as we have recently watched with alarm in troubled places like Ferguson and Baltimore.
Many of us remember days from our youth when we drove cheap cars and were susceptible to being pulled over for traffic citations for a broken taillight, a burned-out headlamp, expired license tags, or other minor infractions more commonly seen in poor communities than richer jurisdictions. Fortunately, the majority of us have enjoyed some measure of prosperity and worked our way out of impoverishment. However, millions elsewhere around the country have not. Minorities and urban dwellers are far more likely than their white suburban counterparts to drive older cars which are vulnerable to scrutiny and a citation. They’re also more likely to get slapped with parking tickets, be booted or towed away, and/or even be detained during routine traffic stops simply because there are far more situations in daily urban society than a rural society where citizens meet police at the literal and proverbial crossroads.
Indeed years ago, I remember driving cars that couldn’t pass state inspection. I recall numerous instances of driving with expired license tags because I didn’t have enough money to register the car until my next paycheck. While in college, working what amounted to minimum-wage jobs, balancing school and work didn’t give me much of a choice — I had to drive to college or my job no matter what and so I took the risk of getting a ticket each time I drove on a city street. When inevitably stopped by police and tickets were written, those were huge setbacks for me — getting hit with what amounted to losing a few days’ pay, if not worse. Then, the only option consisted of paying the fine within a few weeks or risk getting arrested. For those who remember leaner times like that, it’s a slippery slope and a downward spiral, which most of us lifted ourselves from with hard work and economic opportunity (one might even say privilege). But what about all those left behind, who still drive shitty cars and have to hustle to find parking spaces every day all across America? What must their daily lives be like?
The fact is, the poor have become a cash cow. City governments, many budget-starved and desperate to increase tax revenues, have turned their local police departments into what amounts to roving traffic trolls. We’ve all experienced those annoying “speed traps,” which are little more than asphalt flypaper specifically designed to entrap unaware drivers. Now, in many parts of the country, more police officers are assigned to traffic enforcement (writing tickets) than preventing or solving crimes. Police working-for-profit is basically strong-arming the public and disproportionally impact the poor.
Consider the vicious cycle of fear and intimidation this grotesque shakedown has created within so many local communities. Here’s just one example of intended empathy. Let’s face it, when we see a cop in our rear-view mirror we aim to stay clear of the cruiser. We don’t think to ourselves — that police car is here to protect me…I love it when cruisers drive directly behind me my whole trip! Instead, we think of the situation this way — that police car is out to get me…I wish he’d turn off and go away so I can relax and drive normally.
I suspect that mass citizen fear of police departments is considerably worse (and dangerous) among members of the minority community and low-income folks. Not only are there reasonable fears they won’t be treated with the same as more affluent citizens, but the financial impact of receiving a traffic ticket and/or being taken into custody for an outstanding warrant are also much more severe. In many cases, decent hard-working people who are trying to get to and from their jobs, or drive their kids to the doctor, or engage in other everyday responsibilities suffer cruel setbacks when they’re cited or detained. They can ill afford these fines. In some cases, desperate for money to pay off tickets, the poor have to resort to predatory quick loan centers which litter poor neighborhoods and are essentially loan sharks charging exorbitant interest rates. In extreme cases, which are all too common, the poor citizen who receives a traffic ticket simply lacks the means to pay the fine within the given time frame, and so they’re subject to arrest and being jailed for what amounts to minor infractions. Then, while incarcerated, they lose jobs and slide back to the bottom of the economic ladder where they must somehow struggle to start over again. This is justice in America?
The boiling point gets reached when enough citizens simply do not trust the police anymore and look to institutions of authority not as neighbors and partners, but as oppressors. With manufacturing and industrial centers steadily on the decline across urban America, and particularly septic in cities like St. Louis and Baltimore, this has led to far less decent-paying jobs. Abandoned buildings and higher unemployment mean more vagrancy and increases in crime. Shuttered factories and fewer workers also translate into decreasing tax revenues. So in response to the crisis, many communities have resorted to funding civil necessities like police departments and balancing budgets by shaking down the poor. Write more tickets. Increase the fines. Squeeze tighter.
Of course, there need to be reasonable traffic laws and effective enforcement, so long as they’re applied consistently and proportional to the violation. No one would argue against local police departments appropriating some resources towards patrolling city streets and protecting public safety. That said, here’s the devastating conclusion reached by a recent report on this topic, alleging that excessive ticketing in minority communities has, in part,-fueled social unrest:
Another study released this week by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group based in Washington, suggested that the problem was common across the region’s patchwork of small cities (around Greater St. Louis), many of which have their own mayors, judges, and police chiefs. ‘In many municipalities, policing priorities are driven not by the public safety needs of the community, but rather by the goal of generating large portions of the operating revenue for the local government,’ said the research forum’s report, which suggested consolidating several police departments. ‘This is a grossly inappropriate mission for the police, often carried out at the direction of local elected officials.’
Indeed, there are far too many tear-jerking stories in all parts of the country by the tens of thousands, of good people near the bottom of the economic chain being fined excessively and then suffering even more calamitous blows when they can’t pay the tickets. Squeezing the unemployed and the working poor tighter does nothing to help anyone in our society. Even localities and police departments, the supposed beneficiaries of more citations and heavier fines end up suffering setbacks in terms of the community’s collective trust. Everyone loses in this mindlessly self-defeating money grab.
While flagrant police abuses like we’ve recently witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore are often the flame that ultimately ignites urban explosions, the fuse of such anger and resentment is often already in place, its foundations established in a crooked judicial system weighed so heavily against the poor and minorities — and a double-whammy to underprivileged urban blacks. It’s a rigged system not only evidenced by a mountain of evidence as to how some people are treated differently in the courts, and for many later on in jails and prisons, but also on the city streets of America, where the most vulnerable persons in our society ending up suffering the most.