Riot-torn Ferguson's distrust of police flows from a city run on fines

The underlying problem with Ferguson, Mo., Keith Boag writes, is that it's a town that makes no sense. But what do you expect when you run a city on traffic fines and punitive everyday penalties.

The city at the centre of the Michael Brown shooting is one of 90 small enclaves in the same county

Police officers, backed by National Guard soldiers in the rear, watch protesters gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department on Nov. 28, 2014 as the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown shooting was released. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

One way to improve the mood in Ferguson, Missouri, might be to just get rid of its police force and let the county police take over.

Or even better, perhaps, do what St. George did.

A few years ago a woman named Carmen Wilkerson ran for mayor of St. George, then another small town down the road from Ferguson in St. Louis County.

She was a single issue candidate: her one campaign promise was that, if elected, she would do her best to destroy the city.

The argument wasn't complicated. St. George didn't do much for its population of 1,337 — no schools, no fire department, no public library. It really had no reason for being.

It had already shut down its police department figuring that it didn't need three officers whose main job was to write traffic tickets so that the town could collect the fines to cover the cost of the officers' salaries.

That left St. George's city council in charge of one snowplow and not much else.

Wilkerson won the election and immediately got to work making sure she would be the last mayor St. George ever had.

She engineered a referendum and, by the end of the year, she had persuaded enough people to vote to abolish their town. St. George disappeared into St. Louis County as an unincorporated territory.

Such reasonableness is rare in St. Louis County where the landscape is stuffed with tiny towns that make no sense.

Like Ferguson, the place that has been at the epicentre of racial tension since a black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, back in August.


In St. Louis County, two-thirds of the population, about 650,000 people, live in what are called "incorporated municipalities. There are 90 of them.

A few have city-sized populations. Ferguson's is about 21,000.

Fourteen have populations of fewer than 500. The smallest is Champ, population 12. The smallest area-wise is MacKenzie, which is about the size of 10 football fields.

Most stunning of all is that 58 of the 90 municipalities have their own police departments, which is where the perniciousness of the micro-burgs comes into view.

St. Louis County is littered with police whose main preoccupations seem to be writing traffic tickets and/or arresting people for not paying the tickets.

Ferguson, of course, is in it up to its eyeballs.

Fines and court fees are Ferguson's second largest source of revenue, bringing in just over $2.5 million last year.

How did all this happen?

Much of it began decades ago with the flight of people from the city of St. Louis to the fledgling suburbs.

At that time it was easier in St. Louis County than in other places for a small residential subdivision to turn itself into a city. Once that was done, the townsfolk controlled their own zoning and development.

Student activists stage a 'die-in' at Washington University in St. Louis on Monday as part of the nationwide "Hands up, walk out" protest, demanding justice for the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Reuters)

In those pre-civil-rights days a city would write covenants restricting who could buy or lease property within its boundaries.

The new city people were almost all white (Ferguson was 99 per cent white in 1970) and the people they wanted to keep out were black. So that's what they wrote into their covenants: no selling, renting or conveying in any way to Negroes.

When restrictive covenants were made unenforceable and blacks were free to move into new neighbourhoods, whites moved out leaving behind the mosaic of tiny jurisdictions that exists today.

In many cases populations are too small to provide the tax base for a city, and so some of the tiniest towns have the most highly aggressive policing. They try to make up in traffic fines what they can't generate in property or sales taxes.

Bella Villa, for instance, a city with a population of about 800, is a tiny little speed trap. It has reportedly collected almost 60 per cent of its yearly budget through traffic fines.

Tax on the poor

The burden of such hyperactive traffic policing falls most heavily on the poorest.

It's they who have trouble finding the money to pay fines. It's they who may have to choose between driving illegally to work or not working. It's they who may be struggling just to feed a family.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson speaks to reporters in August following the shooting of Michael Brown by then officer Darren Wilson. The city of 21,000 had 82 police department personnel, almost all of them white. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

A Washington Post investigation found community police and courts issuing minor traffic violations, then piling court fees on top of them, then arrest warrants, more fees, and eventually, though not finally, imprisonment.

All that for a traffic offence.

In those circumstances you don't have to be poor to start believing that the police are there not to protect and serve you, but to pinch and squeeze every nickel out of you in any way they can.

The situation is just one of those things in St. Louis County that "everybody knows."

What the shooting death of Michael Brown did was put a big, bright national spotlight on this municipal racket, and that is having an impact.

On Oct. 1, the city of St. Louis, which isn't part of St. Louis County, announced it had wiped roughly 220,000 outstanding arrest warrants from its files. These were warrants for non-violent law-breaking such as traffic violations.

"In light of Ferguson, we were thinking of how we could be more fair," said a spokesman for the mayor.

And in Ferguson itself the city council has announced plans to reform its court system and get rid of some of the penalties that have trapped people in a spiral of ever-increasing fines and fees.

That, at least, recognizes that there are aspects to law and order in St. Louis County that are really just played as nudge-nudge, wink-wink games at the tragic expense of poor people.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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