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How American Cities Fine Their Black Citizens To Make Up For Budget Shortfalls

A new analysis from Priceonomics shows that the cities with the worst ticketing practices for minor offenses all happen to have large African American populations.

How American Cities Fine Their Black Citizens To Make Up For Budget Shortfalls

[Photo: Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock]

Cities usually make their money from taxes on property, sales, and income, plus money from the federal government. But if a city has a lot of black people living in it, then it may have another significant income stream—fining its black residents.

According to a piece from Priceonomics, the single biggest factor determining whether or not a municipality levies a lot of fines on its citizens is the size of its African American population. After reading the Justice Department’s 2010 report on Ferguson, Missouri, which found that the city was using fines and fees as a revenue source, Priceonomics’ Dan Kopf dug into the fining practices of other U.S. cities, to find out if Ferguson was an anomaly or typical. But first, let’s look at that Justice Department report.

In March 2010, for instance, the City 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 . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue."

And on the subject of police practices:

The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code […] Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.

According to Kopf, this problem is happening almost everywhere, not just Ferguson. To check, he looked at the 2012 Census of Local and State Finances, which lists revenues from fines, and cross referenced it with data on the demographics of U.S. cities. And what he found was that race, more than anything else, determines the amount of fines levied. "Among the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines," writes Kopf, "the median size of the African American population—on a percentage basis—is more than five times greater than the national median."

Dan Kopf, Priceonomics

Perhaps there’s another factor at work, though? Maybe cities target their poor, not their black citizens? After all, poorer inner-city neighborhoods are more likely to be black. To check this, Kopf took a look at the poverty rates of the cities with the highest fine rates. He got this:

Dan Kopf, Priceonomics

There’s no correlation between poverty and the rate of fines. The highest-fining and lowest-fining municipalities have the same proportion of citizens in poverty (15.5%). So the determining factor seems to be, almost certainly, race. But why? Because of bias: "Charging individuals with minor infractions is highly discretionary and influenced by where law enforcement choose to direct their attention," writes Kopf. And therefore, "African Americans suffer from heavier legal penalties due to the implicit bias of police officers."

Cops don’t cruise rich neighborhoods, looking for trouble, and then bust the residents for minor infractions. They cruise black neighborhoods when they want to do some harassing. African Americans in the U.S. are disproportionately arrested for drug sales and possession, statistics show.

Looking at these figures, it’s hard to interpret them in any way other than that the police are targeting African Americans as an income source. Essentially, then, the police are running a protection racket, only without the actual protection, shaking down black citizens to make up tax and budget shortfalls, even while taxes everywhere are cut for richer folks.

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