POLITICS

Police Research Group Shocked By Predatory Ticketing Practices In St. Louis County

05/04/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The head of a respected police research organization that has studied policing in St. Louis over the past several months said his organization has "never before encountered" the types of profit-driven policing practices it found in parts of St. Louis County.

“Our organization found a situation that, in many ways, is dysfunctional and unsustainable,” Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said in a statement on Monday along with the release of the 79-page report. The organization has worked with more than 300 police departments across the country.

The PERF report found that an "inappropriate and misguided mission has been thrust upon the police in many communities: the need to generate large sums of revenue for their city governments."

"This is not the way that policing is done in the United States. PERF has never before encountered what we have seen in parts of St. Louis County. The role of police is to protect the public and to work with local communities to solve problems of crime and disorder -- not to harass residents with absurd systems of fines and penalties, mostly for extremely minor offenses," the report stated.

"The crisis in many St. Louis County departments is driven by the need to generate more and more revenue to fund the patchwork of dozens of local governments that exist in the county," the report continued. "Especially in small, impoverished municipalities where traditional sources of revenue such as taxes have stagnated or declined, police departments are being pushed into the role of revenue generators for their cities and towns. They are being diverted away from their traditional roles of community guardians and protectors."

The report tracks closely with the findings of the Justice Department's investigation into the practices of the police department and municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri. Advocates and law enforcement leaders in St. Louis County have long pointed out that the practices weren't unique to Ferguson.

PERF's study was conducted at the request of Better Together St. Louis, an organization looking at fragmentation in the St. Louis region.

Policing practices in St. Louis County's network of municipalities came under scrutiny after an officer in Ferguson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August, sparking protests and looting. St. Louis County has 90 municipalities -- many of which have their own courts and police forces -- that rely very heavily on revenue generated by ticketing citizens for minor infractions of municipal codes.

PERF's report found that policing in many communities is "driven by the need to generate revenue, and not by the public safety needs or priorities of the community."

From the report:

A concern expressed by many participants in our Town Hall Meetings and focus groups was that in many communities, police priorities are not just misguided -- they are the complete opposite of what residents want and expect. As one town hall participant put it, policing in her community is viewed by many as “another form of taxation,” rather than the proper role of protecting and serving the community. This feeling is especially strong in those municipalities where property and sales taxes (the primary sources of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities) are lagging. In those communities, local officials have turned to fines associated with traffic tickets and municipal code citations issued by the police to plug revenue gaps for their local governments. One of our focus group participants put it this way: “It’s no secret that a lot of these municipal police officers are only supposed to be revenue drivers for their cities.”

This intense, widespread focus of the police on generating revenue is an anomaly that PERF has not seen elsewhere in the United States. It is considered a best practice in policing for municipal governments to write formal mission statements defining exactly what they want from their police departments. These mission statements often have many points in common (e.g., crime prevention is usually a high priority), while differing in emphasis according to the political or philosophical leanings of the jurisdiction on certain issues, such as immigration enforcement and civil liberties priorities. PERF is unaware of any police mission statement that makes any mention of generating revenue through fines and penalties, although that is clearly a high priority of some departments in St. Louis County.

Instead of trying to "prevent infractions and keep individuals out of the justice system, many police departments engage in practices that end up bringing more people into the system in an effort to bring more dollars into municipal coffers," the report stated.

One Bellefontaine Neighbors resident told researchers that when his home was broken into while he was away, nobody tried to contact him to tell him about the burglary. Instead, they issued three animal control citations for the dogs in his home.

The Missouri legislature has advanced legislation that would enhance Macks Creek Law, which puts a cap on the amount of revenue that municipalities can obtain through traffic fines and fees. The report said that law should be strengthened and enforced "more vigorously."

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