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by Peter Moskos

March 6, 2015

DOJ: The Whole Damn System is Guilty!

[My other posts on the DOJ reports, 1 & 3.]

The DOJ's report of Ferguson isn't just about police or just about race. A large part of the report -- to me the more disturbing part -- is about a whole system of government using the criminal justice system as a tool to legally steal from its residents. It's feudal, but more arbitrary. That makes it despotic. And it's not unique to Ferguson.

When the mafia ran a town, at least they knew they were the mob. But this is a system working under the cover of the law. But in its operation it's nothing more than old-fashioned criminal racket.

I don't want to say you shouldn't see this in a broader context of race and racism (I mean, the people getting exploited are poor and black). But one could be blind to race and still be outraged. Just don't be not be outraged because the victims are poor and black. Presumably there are poor whites facing the same problem somewhere else in small town America. I don't know. It's wrong.

Here's how it works: the political system makes rules and tells the police to issue fines. Not for crimes, mind you, but for small stuff, traffic violations and municipal violations. The stated goalis to raise money. The court system multiplies those fines. The goal -- the stated goal -- is to get 30 percent of funds (the legal limit) through such skullduggery. From the DOJ report:
It is rare for the court to sentence anyone to jail as a penalty for a violation of the municipal code; indeed, the Municipal Judge reports that he has done so only once. Rather, the court almost always imposes a monetary penalty payable to the City of Ferguson, plus court fees.
The City Manager also requested and secured City Council approval to fund additional court positions, noting in January 2013 that "each month we are setting new all-time records in fines and forfeitures," that this was overburdening court staff, and that the funding for the additional positions "will be more than covered by the increase in revenues."
In its budget for fiscal year 2013, the City budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million; the court exceeded that target as well, collecting $2.46 million. For 2014, the City budgeted for the municipal court to generate $2.63 million in revenue.
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."
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."

"As the RLCs [Red Light Cameras] net revenues ramp up to whatever we believe its annualized rate will be, then we can figure out how to balance the two programs to get their total revenues as close as possible to the statutory limit of 30%."
How do you work in such a system and maintain a clean conscious? Well...
City officials’ application of the stereotype that African Americans lack "personal responsibility" to explain why Ferguson’s practices harm African Americans, even as these same City officials exhibit a lack of personal--and professional--responsibility in handling their own and their friends’ code violations, is further evidence of discriminatory bias on the part of decision makers central to the direction of law enforcement in Ferguson.
In other words, if you knew the right person, your tickets and fines simply disappear. So the idea of "personal responsibility" didn't actually extend to oneself. It was only used for other people.

As to the police, I think the focus on racist emails sent by police is kind of a red herring. I mean they are racist. And? And -- since these emails are sent on the job on their job email accounts -- this racism is part of the accepted culture. OK. (This goes beyond private tasteless gallows-humor jokes about crime scenes and victims, with which I have no problem).

Racists jokes don't actually make the joke teller become a racist person. Racist jokes let other people know when person is racist. So I'm kind of happy to see these jokes because now I know. But it doesn't shock me that there are racists in the police department. It would shock me if there were not. Liberals seem to revel every time a racist is outed. Conservatives love saying racism doesn't matter. But of course there are racists and of course it matters. But here's why I kind of shrug my shoulders when stuff like this comes out. It's not like racists disappeared when the 13th Amendment was passed. Racist didn't suddenly let their daughters date black men after the passage Civil Rights Act of 1964. We don't need to solve racism to make things a hell of a lot better.

And debating whether a joke is racist or only in bad taste is not an argument worth having. I think many of the cops are racist. But, like Jefferson's bible, we can say the F.P.D. is seriously messed up without even talking about race.

You might still think Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim. You might be the most conservative Eric-Holder-hating cop. You can think every example of police action in the DOJ report is OK. You can do all that and still read this DOJ report and be outraged at the facts that not subject to ideological interpretation or "liberal bias." (But don't forget this is the same DOJ that did not throw Darren Wilson under the bus.)
Ferguson uses its police department in large part as a collection agency for its municipal court. Ferguson’s municipal court issues arrest warrants at a rate that police officials have called, in internal emails, "staggering." According to the court’s own figures, as of December 2014, over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants that had been issued by the court.
Ferguson has a population of 21,000.

Cops understand this emphasis on fund raising:
One officer told us that officers could spend more time engaging with community members and undertaking problem-solving projects if FPD officers were not so focused on activities that generate revenue. This officer told us, "everything’s about the courts . . . the court’s enforcement priorities are money." Another officer told us that officers cannot "get out of the car and play basketball with the kids," because "we’ve removed all the basketball hoops -- there’s an ordinance against it."
There's some irony there in moving kids from off one "court" to on to another.

[Also, this DOJ report places strong blames on 12-hour shifts as hurting community relations. It links 12-hour shifts to lack of defined beats. I'm not certain why those would go together. This is news to me. Feel free to comment.]

Overall the police organization comes off as pretty incompetent. Again, not hard for a former cop to imagine. But this level of institutional slackness is pretty bad:
In Ferguson, officers will sometimes make an arrest without writing a report or even obtaining an incident number, and hundreds of reports can pile up for months without supervisors reviewing them.
That's messed up.
Officers invoke the term "ped check" as though it has some unique constitutional legitimacy. It does not. Officers may not detain a person, even briefly, without articulable reasonable suspicion. To the extent that the words "ped check" suggest otherwise, the terminology alone is dangerous because it threatens to confuse officers' understanding of the law.
Along with issuing a "wanted" (basically issuing warrants for people without probably cause. ) I've never heard of a "ped check." It's unacceptable. As is this:
In our conversations with FPD officers, one officer admitted that when he conducts a traffic stop, he asks for identification from all passengers as a matter of course. If any refuses, he considers that to be "furtive and aggressive” conduct and cites--and typically arrests--the person for Failure to Comply.
And it lead to things like this:
One woman... received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541 -- after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions. Another woman told us that when she went to court to try to pay $100 on a $600 outstanding balance, the Court Clerk refused to take the partial payment, even though the woman explained that she was a single mother and could not afford to pay more that month.
The report concludes:
Our investigation indicates that in Ferguson, individual officer behavior is largely driven by a police culture that focuses on revenue generation and is infected by race bias. While increased vertical and horizontal diversity, racial and otherwise, likely is necessary to change this culture, it probably cannot do so on its own.
So these two reports tell us that Darren Wilson is innocent (and the protesters were indeed wrong at a very basic level about the facts). But one can't in good faith say one DOJ report is spot-on and the other is terrible, biased, and based on lies. Ferguson is a seriously fucked-up place! The system is racist. Even if it's not racist (which it is), it's immoral and broken. And the Ferguson Police are a part of that system.

So wouldn't it be great if liberals could say, "Gosh, sorry. We were wrong about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson." And then conservatives (and cops) could say, "Apology accepted. But you know what? A system of government run as extortion using police as the muscle to extort money from poor people is racist and wrong." Oh, what a wonderful world it would be.


Andy D said...

Peter, I wonder what your take is about the way that being in LE gets you trapped in a no-win situation. You may know that the revenue-generating part of the job is wrong, but it isn't like you can just decide one day to say "screw it I quit." Most cops (myself included) have few marketable skills that can earn them a comparable salary outside Law Enforcement. And after you have invested a decade or more in the career, there is nowhere to go. We don't start out knowing that we will be pawns for the political class. Plus I think most cops have at least a remnant of the genuine wanting-to-help-people part of them left somewhere inside. I feel that this inner struggle (shall we call it cognitive dissonance?) contributes to the stress, bitterness and general miserable attitude of a lot of cops. It sure does for me.

Peter Moskos said...

You make a great point. I don't know the answer. But I think about it a lot.

One of the things I remember hearing as cop was about me being an interloper... but not in the way I expected (I didn't generally get shit for being a Harvard boy or people knowing I had other life plans). I was on the job; did my job; I got it. And I like to think I was respected for that.

But one officer said (I'm paraphrasing here): "No, you *don't* know what's it's like. Not because you're not a cop. Sure you know the job because you're on the streets. But what you will never get is what it's like to be stuck you. *You* can leave. I hate this fucking job, and I can't leave. I've got another 12 years [or whatever it was] on this job."

He's right. And I don't have the answer.

Some cops love their jobs. Most others have good day and bad days (that's why they call it "work"). I was basically in that latter category. But what do you do if you're burnt out and wake up every fucking day and hate your job dread going to work? I don't know.

And some departments are better than others (though cops complain in all of them).

You've got a spouse and a paycheck and the health benefits for your kids and the promise of a pension.... In some ways it could be any shitty factory job, except policing isn't like any factory job.

Sure, you can *try* and change the system from within. But we both know damn well that a low-ranking police officer isn't going to change shit on his or her own.

But policing *does* change. And I try and help it change for the better. Police are too often in a position where they can't speak for themselves (not that they're not able to... they're not allowed to). So through this blog and my writing and teaching, I try to give police officers (to use a namby-pamby grad-school term) "voice". It's what *I* can do.

So I try and shift the blame to the system where it belongs. But it would also be nice if more police officers saw some opposition to policing as not an attack on them personally but as it is: opposition to a fucked up system.

Only some "anti-police" protesters hate police. Fuck 'em, I say. But other protesters, most others, just want a better world. Police, and this is crazy idea if you know police, sometime need to embrace change.

It's exactly why I tried to separate the "anti-police" part of the DOJ report from the large parts of it that are absolutely correct.

And if the system is less fucked up -- if police become workers in a good system rather than pawns in a fucked-up system -- life will be better for police officers.

And let me add this (and this is hardly a complete solution) but I do bring this up at some point when I teach my students who want to become police officers: try and remember some of that idealism you went on the job with. Because you *are* going to lose it. So if and when you're burnt out and hate your job, remember your ideals and treat people with dignity and respect. Even when they don't deserve it. Even as you're giving them hard time and writing tickets. And when you treat people as humans being, some of them (not all, but some) will treat you with dignity and respect. And when your on-the-job interactions are *sometimes* positive -- and they won't be if you treat everybody like shit -- you can your pride and dignity and remember that you are doing an important and occasionally noble job.

I don't know.

Andy D said...

I, for one, appreciate the voice you give to those of us on the streets. My opinions aren't always appreciated when I voice them among my peers, and I guess i shouldn't expect them to be. I think we train our cops NOT to question and so we get what we recruit and train and promote: we get a thin blue line that backs its own even when its own are fucked up beyond belief. We get a thin blue line that DOES take criticism of a fucked up system as a personal assault on the guys with the badge. I've always felt that a lot of the resentment towards cops IS resentment towards the system and the government. Unfortunately we are the visible and enforcing arm of that system. yet every time I see guys on the job do things that I find repugnant, and every time I see them treat people without respect, every time I see them do those things, some part of me dies. I try to do what i can from within: I try to field train my guys to show respect. I try to model the behavior the community should be able to expect from us. But yet...that part of me dies a little bit every day. I'm a "college boy" too. But being the lib arts major that i am, I have nowhere to go. I totally understand what that cop was telling you, and I know that you acknowledge that he had a point. If only I could worry about crimes against person and crimes against property and leave the revenue-generating and the political BS out of it. But that's not possible. I appreciate what you do to help, even if you don't have the penetration into the mainstream of police thought that i wish you had. Thank you.

Peter Moskos said...

If it makes you feel any better (it won't), I worked in a department (Baltimore City) where we did not feel any pressure to produce revenue. I think this is more a problem is small departments (without knowing, I would guess you department has dozens or hundreds of officers rather than thousands).

And yet even when police do not feel pressure to to generate revenue... they still bitch just as much!