… you may wish to consider the following information in re: your salary.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Edmundson is a “city” in St. Louis County, about a ten-minute drive from Ferguson (might take a lot longer, of course, if you’re black). As Radley Balko has written about in detail, St. Louis County is made up of almost 100 teeny little municipalities, each one of which has its own municipal code, police force, and court. “Teeny” may not be scientific, but it’s accurate. Edmundson’s slogan is “Front Door to St. Louis Lambert International Airport,” and that slogan is almost as bad as the location but my point is that Edmundson is actually much smaller than the airport.
Okay, maybe that’s not fair—airports are big. How about, Edmundson is not much bigger than the terminal?
And yet it has its own city government, law code, and law-enforcement system. Any town of 834 is going to have difficulty paying for that with a sales tax alone. The solution, as the letter shows, is to prey on the citizens. According to this report, Edmundson gets almost 35 percent of its revenue from court fines and fees, and that is not uncommon in the area. But with so few people in these towns, they have to get creative and aggressive. Of course some of the revenue is extorted from travelers, but residents suffer the most from being targeted and written up over and over again, and then punished for being unable to pay. (The report says another nearby town has 1,300 residents and over 33,000 outstanding warrants.) And this is just scratching the surface of what these reports show. It is astounding.
Of course, none of this is official policy, as the mayor’s letter clearly states. He specifically says that he wants only “good tickets” written. (He’s probably one of those people who uses quote marks for emphasis.) And, in an entirely separate and unrelated matter, he takes the opportunity to remind officers of certain unfortunate fiscal realities that might impact their remuneration. He’s not telling them what to do, you understand. He’s just stating facts. Do what you think is fair (to yourself and the city, that is).
On a late spring evening eight years ago, police pulled over my mother’s 1997 Oldsmobile Aurora, in the suburb of St. Ann, Missouri, as she raced to pick up a relative from St. Louis’s Lambert International Airport. “Do you know why I stopped you?” the officer asked. “No I don’t,” my mother answered. The police charged her with speeding, but she did not receive a mere ticket. Instead, an officer ran my mother’s name and told her that since she had failed to appear in court for driving without a license, there was a six-year-old warrant out for her arrest. “I just started crying. I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said. The police arrested her and hauled her off to St. Louis County Jail, where authorities eventually allowed her one phone call, which she placed to my stepfather. He said, shaking his head, “I was surprised because I knew she didn’t have no warrants.”
St. Ann is one of the more notorious cities in the county when it comes to traffic violations, and in my mother’s case, the city’s finest, quite simply, fucked up. As it was, my mother had no warrant; the police confused her with another woman who shared her name — sans the middle initial.
She would go on to spend two nights in jail, pay $1,000 in fines that she did not owe, and plead guilty to the crimes of the other woman. She paid a devastating price, financially and emotionally, for the racist and classist policing described in last month’s Justice Department report on the tumult in Missouri. The 102-page document details the physical and economic terror inflicted upon the poor and black residents of Ferguson, Missouri. The report echoed the torrent of criticism that residents have long lodged at the city’s overseers. But, as my mother’s experience helps illustrate, the injustices cataloged by the investigation are not confined to one tiny Midwestern suburb. Ferguson is emblematic of how municipalities in the St. Louis region, and across the country, operate as carceral, mob-like states that view and treat poor black people as cash cows.
In Ferguson, at least 16,000 individuals had arrest warrants last year compared with the town’s total population of just 21,000 residents. Those warrants fed what the DOJ called a “code-enforcement system … honed to produce more revenue.” In nearby City of St. Louis, the 75,000 outstanding arrest warrants are equivalent to about one-quarter of the population, part of a county-wide problem of cash-strapped cities incentivized to “squeeze their residents with fines,” as The Washington Post put it. One city, Pine Lawn, Missouri, recently had 23,000 open arrest warrants compared with the city’s population of just 3,275 residents; court fees and traffic tickets make up nearly 30 percent of its municipal revenue. “Getting tickets — and getting them fixed — are two actions that define living in the St. Louis area,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this month.