The thing about the Ferguson incident that might need more of our attention is that the officer stopped Michael Brown not because of the robbery at the convenience store but because he was jaywalking. What this brings to light is what police work is really about in this and other municipalities—generating revenue from tickets. The cops are really not there to find crooks but to find violations. This is how they get paid. Cracking a case ends with nothing gained financially. Stopping a car or person for a traffic violation gets that money. We must not dissociate these fines (for jaywalking, for not wearing a helmet, and so on) with the constant pressure and threat of budget cuts. It's no exaggeration to say that the Ferguson police department was farming the working-class neighborhood.
When calm and order is finally restored to Ferguson, Missouri, the city's leaders may find little room to maneuver to resolve an issue that has long inflamed racial tensions: traffic tickets.
On the surface it would seem an easy fix for the mainly white police force simply to adopt a less aggressive policy on traffic stops, which overwhelmingly and disproportionately snare black motorists.
That may be easier said than done, though.
Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb's second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably. Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.
This might be what's behind the decline in the deeper and older substance of police work that was noted back in 2007:
The Associated Press show that the homicide clearance rate, as detectives call it, dropped from 91 percent in 1963 — the first year records were kept in the manner they are now — to 61 percent in 2007.
Law enforcement officials say the chief reason is a rise in drug- and gang-related killings, which are often impersonal and anonymous, and thus harder to solve than slayings among family members or friends. As a result, police departments are carrying an ever-growing number of "cold-case" murders on their books.
Not sure we should buy that explanation. Catching murderers costs money. Cities do not have money. Rich people have all the money, and cops have pensions and middle-class wages. Traffic violations are the way to go in the age of austerity.
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