Economy

Ferguson Traffic Fines Reform Is Having A Surprising Side Effect

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

A Missouri National Guardsman stands in front of Ferguson City Hall on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury's decision not to indict a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of Michael Brown has sparked protests nationwide, triggering debates over the relations between black communities and law enforcement.

A tiny Missouri town disbanded its police department last week, acknowledging that its old way of operating was untenable under a new state law restricting towns in St. Louis County from using cops, courts, and speed traps as a money mill.

Facing the loss of the traffic fines and court fees it relied upon for funding, the town of Charlack, MO, is dissolving its tiny police force and contracting out from a new player on the law enforcement scene in the St. Louis area. The North County Police Cooperative (NCPC), an outgrowth of neighboring Vinita Park’s own police force, will take over responsibility for the handful of streets that make up tiny Charlack.

Charlack isn’t the first town to dissolve its force in recent months, and it likely won’t be the last either. Starting in the next fiscal year, St. Louis County governments will have to prove that they get less than 12.5 percent of all operating revenue from fines and fees related to minor traffic violations.

The law was prompted by federal investigations in the wake of Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014. Those inquiries revealed vast racist abuses. Chief among them is the systematic exploitation of the traffic court system to ensnare drivers – predominantly people of color and low means – with significant fines and court fees for minor traffic violations, essentially converting area police from public safety officers to revenue collectors.

Many towns in St. Louis County that exceed the 12.5 percent threshold and rely on exploiting their mostly-black populations in traffic court will likely be able to adapt by slimming down their police departments and changing policy in accordance with the law. But not Charlack, which is among the smallest incorporated municipalities in the county – and among its most reliant on the combination of speed traps, fines, fees, and failure-to-appear warrants that lawmakers sought to prohibit after police abuses in nearby Ferguson drew world attention to the practice.

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CREDIT: Google Maps/Andrew Breiner

Charlack exemplifies the exploitative standard operating procedure common among many of St. Louis County’s odd-shaped municipalities. It sits astride a couple thousand valuable feet of interstate highway.

That strip of asphalt was Charlack’s money tree. Prior to this summer’s reforms, the tiny hamlet of 1,300 people was getting nearly 29 percent of its total operating revenue from municipal court fines and fees. The town earned a “rocky reputation as a speed trap along a short stretch of Interstate 170, near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport [which] led to widespread complaints that Charlack valued revenue over safety,” the Post-Dispatch notes.

Court-assessed fines and fees were Charlack’s single biggest source of revenue, according to an analysis by Better Together St. Louis that identified 14 such towns within the county’s 90 separate micro-governments. The same report identified 29 municipalities where the share of revenue gathered from all court fines and fees exceeded the 12.5 percent cap now baked into state law for fines and fees tied to minor traffic violations.

Charlack is at least the second traffic court-dependent town in the county to disband its own small force and join the nascent NCPC. The first was Wellston, less than five miles southeast of Charlack.

Wellston used to get about 12.2 percent of overall revenue from fines and fees, suggesting that it might have been able to survive the new state cap. But with a population of just 2,300 and a footprint smaller than a square mile, the town is barely big enough to sustain an independent police force – or need one.

The Wellston department had 17 patrol officers and 23 total staff, or one for every hundred residents. With the new state law still months from kicking in, the department was already destitute. “They have to purchase their own guns, their own ammunition, their own bulletproof vest, everything,” former chief G. T. Walker told the Post-Dispatch. His officers earned $14 an hour.

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CREDIT: Google Maps/Andrew Breiner

Tiny police departments barely clinging to financial viability can easily be tipped over the edge when abusive policies or individual actions draw public ire. Charlack’s mayor cited the cost of lawsuit settlements as part of the reason for abandoning the idea of a locally-chartered police force. Wellston has faced – and ignored – lawsuits by the ACLU.

The consolidation of tiny municipal police departments illustrates the unsustainable and fractious nature of hyperlocal government in the St. Louis area. Towns created at miniature scale struggle to generate revenue for services even without paying for a standing, independent law enforcement body. Those that manage both tend to do so by augmenting their tax base through the exact kind of racist traffic policing that Ferguson brought to the fore.

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CREDIT: Google Maps/Andrew Breiner

State reforms to combat that abuse are now rippling across the jigsaw map of St. Louis County. The county has its own police force that exists expressly to police unincorporated areas and towns that opt not to fund their own departments. Reformers have called for miniature towns to former “clusters” for policing purposes that could be managed by the County PD, but the NCPC breaks from that model. Where policing experts have advised clusters based on common municipal interest, and urged county officials to proceed toward clustering in a proactive and careful way, the NCPC is hoovering up failing towns’ policework ad-hoc.

The cooperative is an extension of the Vinita Park Police Department, which is now expanding its patrol and response area to include three other towns that are paying for the privilege. Charlack will pay Velda City $356,496 to receive police service from the NCPC. The payments for Wellston and Vinita Terrace are unknown, as city officials declined to share those contracts with local reporters.

vinita terrace

CREDIT: Google Maps/Andrew Breiner

Chief Tim Swope expects the new NCPC will have about 40 officers to cover Vinita Park, neighboring Vinita Terrace and Charlack, and nearby Wellston. Currently the force stands at 25 full-timers and 5 part-timers.

The clustering recommendation from reformers would have had Vinita Park and Wellston cast in their lots with a different, larger list of towns. The goal is to expand jurisdictions, and thereby make it easier to establish and maintain a regional set of standards for police conduct, hiring, and training. But combining multiple tiny police departments into one web of financial convenience, rather than hewing out partnerships based on mutual interest and considered policy change, won’t necessarily deliver the same benefits.