‘Taxation by Citation’ Undermines Trust Between Cops and Citizens

Too often local officials demand that police write more traffic tickets to bring in additional revenue.

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By

Jefferson City, Mo.

Many of our nation’s cities are beset with tension between residents and the elected officials and law-enforcement officers who serve them. In my home state of Missouri, weeks of protests in Ferguson began on Aug. 9, 2014, when a young African-American man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. This Sunday, the one-year anniversary of the shooting, is a time to reflect on any progress we’ve made in our communities and what remains to be done.

Leaders here have had a year to come to terms with the tragic events that began that day. The Missouri Department of Public Safety is in the process of updating how law-enforcement officers are trained, with a renewed focus on fair and impartial policing. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has promoted more personal outreach between police and community members, and the state is pursuing new standards for law-enforcement training.

But we also need new standards for local-government and judicial accountability. As the unrest in Ferguson worsened last year, I talked to community leaders and, more important, area residents and police officers about what had gone wrong. Consistently I heard that there was a breakdown of trust between the people and their government and courts. I grew up only miles from Ferguson, and I’m now a state senator serving St. Louis County. So I knew that there were steps the legislature could take to help restore the public’s trust in the police.

One thing that shatters trust are schemes by local officials to drum up revenue by demanding their police officers write excessive traffic tickets—“taxation by citation”—which disproportionately hurts the poor.

St. Ann, a suburb of St. Louis that lies about 15 minutes west of Ferguson along Interstate 70, was once home to the largest mall in the nation, Northwest Plaza. But the mall closed in 2010 after being hit hard by the recession and competition elsewhere. As populations and shopping dollars shifted within the region, the city’s general revenue declined, but an increase in traffic tickets kept the coffers full. Between 2009 and 2014, St. Ann’s police department went from writing 3,500 tickets worth $722,000 to 10,000 tickets worth $2,834,000.

Next door in Edmundson, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, Mayor John Gwaltney wrote an April 2014 letter to his city’s police, noting a “marked downturn in traffic and other tickets being written by your department.” The mayor went on to remind officers that the tickets they write add to the revenue on which the police department budget is established, “and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time.” Mayor Gwaltney had a subtle way of delivering his message: The letter was included with police officers’ paychecks.

Nearby in Bellefontaine Neighbors, public officials threatened to fire officers who did not meet ticket and arrest quotas. One policeman showed reporters a letter stating he should “expect to be replaced, disciplined, or terminated” if he didn’t make his numbers. “I wasn’t comfortable doing it, but I had to do it,” the officer told KMOV. “I have a wife and two children I had to support.”

Earlier this year I filed legislation, signed into law July 9, to cap the amount of revenue Missouri municipalities may generate from traffic tickets. Previously, Missouri had a law that said municipalities could only fund 30% of their budgets with tickets, but it lacked any mechanism for enforcement. Our reform lowered the cap to 20%—and 12.5% for municipalities in St. Louis County, where the most egregious behavior had been taking place—and created a new structure for the State Auditor and the Department of Revenue to track cities’ compliance.

Our reform also requires municipalities in St. Louis County to have an annual balanced budget, audit their finances, and accredit their police departments. These are common-sense measures that residents should be able to expect their cities to meet.

If a municipality is found to be breaking this new law, citizens there will be given the opportunity to vote on whether it should continue to exist. This new tool of disincorporation shifts power back to the people. If a majority of voters agree to disband the city or town, the county will assume administrative authority over the area.

The law also prohibits municipal courts from placing someone in jail because he or she could not pay for a broken taillight or expired tags—a sort of modern debtors’ prison. Courts will also be required to offer payment plans and community-service options to accommodate individuals who cannot pay their entire fine all at once, and they will be prevented from tacking on additional fines and fees that seem to have more to do with meeting budget projections than meting out justice. For minor traffic violations such as a broken taillight, fines and fees are together capped at $300.

The violence and vandalism that we saw in Ferguson, and other hot spots of unrest such as Baltimore, is inexcusable, no matter the motivation for it. However, there can also be no excuse for burdensome, exploitative government, which often generates tension in cities. Making local government more accountable to the people and reining in identifiable abuses is essential.

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Source: Wall Street Journal