To Defend and Reform

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

There is quite a bit of food for thought for anyone eager to defend the Ferguson Police Department (or at least the police generally) from its leftist detractors over at Red State. The author reports being appalled at several practices he learned about from the FPD's own records, which he presumed would be that part of the DOJ report most favorable to the FPD. Here's an example:

Perhaps the most damning portion of the DOJ report is the beginning, which lays out in painstaking detail (consisting entirely of information pulled from the City of Ferguson's records) that the FPD's primary purpose in Ferguson was to generate revenue for the city's budget. The report contains a shocking volume of documentary evidence, including emails, that Ferguson's police supervisors, including the City Manager, repeatedly hounded Ferguson officers to increase their ticket fines without regard to whether the tickets they were writing were justified. While police departments across the country like to repeatedly claim that they do not have "ticket quotas," and that they are solely interested in public safety, this report gives the lie to that claim, at least in Ferguson. The internal emails collected during this investigation show a pattern of behavior that most Americans have long suspected exists behind closed doors in many police departments: discipline issued for failing to write enough tickets, threatening emails to cops who are under performing in writing tickets, and prominent "score sheets" posted showing who top "performers" are.
One of the author's points -- with which I agree -- is that the use of the police as tax collectors -- is improper, whether the FPD is better, worse, or about the same as other police departments across the country. But there is much more of concern, as one can see even by skimming this lengthy post. In the same vein, part of the conclusion bears repeating here:
I am not going to sugar coat this or engage in a lot of pointless throat clearing here -- the report, taken as a whole, even in terms of material collected exclusively from FPD documents, is incredibly damning of police and municipal court practices in Ferguson. Anyone who can read the actual report itself and be comfortable with the fact that citizens of an American city live under such a regime is frankly not someone who is ideologically aligned with me in any meaningful way. The practices of the FPD and Municipal Court are destructive to freedom and in blatant violation of our constitutional rights, and they depend for sufferance on the fact that most people are not willing (or, in the case of most of Ferguson's residents, able) to mount an expensive legal fight for relatively trivial amounts of money such as are involved in a traffic ticket. Evidence of the Ferguson PD's knowledge of their blatantly unconstitutional practices (especially with respect to the habitual issuance of arrest warrants for missing a payment) is shown in the report by the way that the Municipal Court regularly drops these warrants as soon as a defendant appears with counsel.

I am singularly unimpressed with the argument that the report should be dismissed because it is the product of the Holder DOJ's dissatisfaction at the resolution of the Michael Brown case. The implicit admission in such an argument is that many police departments are worse; if so, the proper response is not to excuse the Ferguson PD but rather to acknowledge that there are, in fact, systemic problems that exist on a widespread basis that should also be solved.

These problems, largely, have their root in the first matter highlighted above -- that many municipal police departments face increasing and unrelenting pressure from city hall to fill increasingly wide gaps in revenue with money from fines and citations. Even a well-intentioned police officer who respects freedom, the citizenry, and vulnerable populations can succumb to temptation when his paycheck and his ability to feed his family is put on the line. And in those cases, where legitimate offenses do not occur, he will be sorely tempted to create them, and to create them among the portion of the populace that is least likely to complain and least likely to be believed when they do complain: non-wealthy black citizens.

Until we, as a people, are willing to understand and address the problem, it will never get better. Until we are willing to hold our municipal officials accountable for using the police force to suck money out of people's pockets instead of legitimately protecting the public safety, the problem will get worse. But most importantly, until and unless we are able to emotionally detach ourselves from the horrible Michael Brown situation and see that what has been exposed, even according to the (probably whitewashed) FPD records, is a travesty, there is no hope for improvement. [bold in original]
Long ago, an old friend of mine observed that practices such as those discussed at Red State, in addition to violating individual rights, also have the cultural impact of causing an erosion of respect for rule of law. Conservatives and others who are aghast at the blatant anti-police motivation of many on the left must not make the same offense of reacting as if jerking their knees. A true defense of the police must include an insistence on reform when it is clearly called for.

-- CAV

P.S. I thank reader Steve D. for drawing my attention to this post.

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