What To Do With the DOJ Report on Ferguson

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Because of business travel and meetings, I postponed reading the Department of Justice report on Ferguson until. late, late last night. And I didn’t read all of it. I tried to focus on the parts we can do something about or learn from.

There are many. And there are many opportunities for distraction. Those distractions will interest some radio talkers, for sure, but distractions block action.

The Big Distraction

Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m not surprised that Eric Holder’s DOJ puts such an emphasis on race. Neither do I dismiss the racial aspects of the report. I think it’s reasonable to assume that at least some problems in Ferguson owe to attitudes toward people of another race.

Some may use the report’s racial overtones to discredit the entire document, though, and that would be a mistake. I’ve edited out references to race in several of the quotes. Race  might matter to Holder, but not to me. Abuse is abuse no matter the victim’s color.

The meat of the story here is corruption driven by government greed, as my friend Christina Botteri (@christinakb) pointed out. The people perpetrating the corruption are not the police, but the city officials who direct police activity.

Eric Holder’s name can drive conservatives and libertarians to distraction. Please read the report, or a summary of the report, open to the possibility that some of the findings are true. Then consider the corroborating evidence we have uncovered in our Municipal Courts project.

Reading the report with an open mind and in light of evidence we already knew about police and court practices in many Missouri cities, we realize that Eric Holder’s last major work is a gift to the liberty lovers of America. Take it as such and act.

Taxation By Citation

The first and clearest finding in the report is no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. Ferguson treats citizens like the government’s ATM machines. From the report:

City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. 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.” Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

Public safety, crime prevention, and investigations–you know, the stuff police are supposed to do–rank below revenue generation in Ferguson:

Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents . . . less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.

Once upon a time when I was about to enter the St. Louis Police Academy, I spent some time with a senior detective about to retire. He told me, “there’s three kinds of people in the world: perps, victims, and cops.”

I felt sorry for him. At the time, I hoped I never developed such cynicism. I thought I understood how such an attitude could develop working with crime all one’s life. But I hoped to avoid it. (I got a job offer while waiting to class up and never became a police officer.)

The daily pressure to write  more tickets and arrest more people on ordinance violations seems to accelerate a cynical attitude. My friend Dan, who testified before Senator Eric Schmitt’s committee on the Mack’s Creek law, told me a friend of his, and former Ferguson police officer, turns down numerous offers to return to law enforcement because of police and civilian leaders who twist good cops into “ticket jockeys.”

Revenue Needs Lead to Civil Rights Abuses

The report describes a familiar tactic police use to create a situation that leads to more fines and jail time: abuse of authority.

This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

I am tempted to say, “but Holder’s DOJ violates the Fourth Amendment all the time.” And “what about the NSA?”

True. This report on Ferguson raises hypocrisy to new heights. But just because the authors of the report violate the law does not mean the report is wrong. It just means we have more work to do.

The report describes how this abuse of authority works:

For example, in the summer of 2012, a . . . man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car.

That story is only one example that fits a pattern easy to identify. If people won’t commit a minor municipal code violation, police in towns like Ferguson will bully people into committing something. It seems that I could be arrested for introducing myself to a cop as “Bill Hennessy.” What if I gave my post office address of Pacific instead of the actual location of my house, Wildwood? Would that constitute Making a False Declaration?

And, since when was a false declaration a crime? Why isn’t the Ferguson PD arresting the President for declaring, “If you like your insurance, you can keep it?”

Let’s move on to the Ferguson Municipal Court.

The Kangaroo Court and Its Tax-Owing Judge

The DOJ report addresses directly a common problem with municipal courts. They don’t even pretend to dispense justice. They operate only to extract as much money as possible from anyone unlucky enough to wander through their doors. Ferguson’s court is like some backwater Mexican jailhouse.

The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests.

Perhaps the perfect description of a problem in dozens of municipal courts around St. Louis County.

Now, some have criticized our muni courts project, asking “don’t you believe in law and order, Bill?”

Yes, I do. And I believe the first law is the law that restricts government. Which is why government officials who break the law should face stronger penalties and harsher rebukes than citizens who commit similar violations.

Most strikingly, the court issues municipal arrest warrants not on the basis of public safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required fine payments. In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees.

Just days after the DOJ released its report on Ferguson, The Guardian reported that the judge of that court, Ronald Brockmeyer, owes a lot of taxes, himself:

The judge in Ferguson, Missouri, who is accused of fixing traffic tickets for himself and colleagues while inflicting a punishing regime of fines and fees on the city’s residents, also owes more than $170,000 in unpaid taxes.

How low of a lowlife is Brockmeyer?

Investigators found Brockmeyer had boasted of creating a range of new court fees, “many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful”. A city councilman opposing the judge’s reappointment was warned “switching judges would/could lead to loss of revenue”.

Brockmeyer is part of the revolving door of municipal court abusers. He’s judge in Ferguson and prosecutor elsewhere, teaching other towns how to extract more blood from their citizen-turnips. From The Guardian:

Brockmeyer, who has been Ferguson’s municipal court judge for 12 years, serves simultaneously as a prosecutor in two nearby cities and as a private attorney. Legal experts said his potentially conflicting interests illustrate a serious problem in the region’s judicial system. Brockmeyer, who reportedly earns $600 per shift as a prosecutor, said last year his dual role benefited defendants. “I see both sides of it,” he said. “I think it’s even better.”

Maybe Brockmeyer needs those ‘abusive and unlawful” fees and fines he’s so proud of to pay his back taxes.

Brockmeyer symbolizes the rentier model of Ferguson and similar cities in St. Louis County. “Rentier” refers to the medieval practice of land barons of demanding large fees simply for crossing their land. The land itself was granted to them by the king–the barons did not buy it. And every inch of some countries were controlled by some baron. Public roads were subject to private tolls. But the barons added no value. They did not improve the roads or offer protection to travelers. They only took. “Rentier.”

The court imposes these severe penalties for missed appearances and payments even as several of the court’s practices create unnecessary barriers to resolving a municipal violation. The court often fails to provide clear and accurate information regarding a person’s charges or court obligations.

We learned that from Dan Hyatt and Lee Presser. Both white, upper-middle-class. Dan and Lee showed that Breckenridge Hills and Bel-Ridge courts fail to comply with Missouri Supreme Court rules on the conduct of court, the preservation of evidence, and the recording of proceedings.

The Snare of Muni Courts

Getting tangled up in the muni court system can lead to a nightmarish carnival of mayhem for the poor.

We spoke, for example, with an African-American woman who has a still-pending case stemming from 2007, when, on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally. She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. The woman, who experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, was charged with seven Failure to Appear offenses for missing court dates or fine payments on her parking tickets between 2007 and 2010. For each Failure to Appear, the court issued an arrest warrant and imposed new fines and fees. From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking. Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full. One of those payments was later accepted, but only after the court’s letter rejecting payment by money order was returned as undeliverable. This woman is now making regular payments on the fine. As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.

It’s easy to say, “she should have gone to court.” You’d be right. But going to court would not have helped if she didn’t have the money to pay.

Further, why is it okay for government–our creation and our servant–to abuse its master? Why can Judge Brockmeyer invent “abusive and unlawful fines” to levy on poor citizens, but the citizen goes to jail and if she can’t or won’t pay those abusive and unlawful fines?

It’s backwards.

Ferguson Has Two Kinds of People

That old cop who told me of three kinds of people was wrong. In cities like Ferguson, where revenue generation trumps everything else, police are victims, too. That leaves two kinds of people: perps and victims.

What’s most disturbing about the reality of cities like Ferguson, Missouri, is the human suffering the system creates. Citizens are not the only victims. The police are victims, too. Darren Wilson was a victim of the system that built walls of hostility and distrust between the police and the people they were supposed to serve and protect.

No one goes to the police academy hoping to write lots of tickets that turn into bench warrants. People become cops because they know civil society needs brave and patient officers who show up at bad situations, keep their heads about them, and settle everything down before figuring out what really happened and writing a report for judges and juries to weigh.

But municipal greed turns these men and women into Sheriffs of Nottingham, finding feeble excuses to extract more tax dollars from citizens for the benefit of a rentier government scheme. And the judges are the perps.

Take Action

After reading the DOJ report, I feel compelled to thank Senator Eric Schmitt and his co-sponsors again. Also, thanks to the people who testified for Senator Schmitt’s bill that reduced the cap on traffic fines to 10 percent of a city’s revenue. But there’s more work to be done.

First, that Mack’s Creek bill that passed the Missouri Senate 34 to 0 needs to pass the House. I spoke to State Representative Shamed Dogan who said he expects the bill to pass, but not as surely as it did in the Senate. Write your Missouri State Rep and ask him or her to support SB-5.

While Senator Schmitt’s bill was a great start, it’s not enough. Auditor Tom Schweich began the process of enforcing the Mack’s Creek law, but he is not around to complete that work. You can email the interim auditor, John Watson, and ask him to continue Schweich’s Municipal Court project. His email is moaudit@auditor.mo.gov.

Finally, we would like to see criminal penalties for mayors, judges, comptrollers, and city managers who impose unlawful fines and fees or try to violate the Mack’s Creek law. Right now, the law only allows the state to abolish abusive muni courts. But guys like Judge Brockmeyer will just migrate to another town and set up shop. As I said, government officials who break the law should face stiffer penalties than citizens.

Free People, Not Sheep

As I wrote back in September, the municipal court problem is a liberty issue. Blindly accepting whatever a town’s police and courts dish out softens people. It prepares us to accept any abuse, any civil rights restriction, the government wants to impose. In the words of 19th century French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, these courts and police practices reduce us to “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Let’s stop these abuses now.

34 to 0: Good Ideas Are Hard to Fight

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I was scared. Not afraid to say it.

And some friends turned hostile. They had good reasons. And I was probably a little cavalier. And I talked way too long.

But last September I wanted to start something that would help real people in our neighborhood while advancing liberty and upsetting abusive government. Sure, I’d rather upset the federal government in Washington, but my arms are little short to box with Harry Reid. St. Louis County’s municipalities, on the other hand, lie within our reach.

So I took a swing.

Thank you to all of you who joined the fight against abusive municipal courts. Thank you to my friends who disagreed with the fight but stayed on the sidelines. Thank you to frequent adversaries who put aside differences and helped out.

Special thanks to Auditor Tom Schweich for his early leadership in launching the Municipal Court Project to audit cities suspected of abusing the Macks Creek Law that capped municipal revenue from traffic tickets to 30 percent of the city’s revenue.

Most of all, thank you, Senator Eric Schmitt. Despite the risks, you took this fight into the Missouri State Senate. You forged alliances with frequent adversaries and risked some friendships with great conservative Senators around the state.

In the end, your vision and leadership prevailed. On Thursday, the Missouri Senate voted 34 to 0 to pass your bill reducing the Macks Creek cap to 10 percent from 30 percent.

Even the New York Times couldn’t help but notice that the right ideas bring together old adversaries. I didn’t do much on this issue–far less than many people whose names you’ll never hear. But I admit I take a little pride in helping Senator Schmitt’s victory.

Do the Speed-Trap Mayors Want You To Drive Dangerously?

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I had the rare honor of testifying before the Missouri Senate committee on Economic Development. The hearing’s subject was Senator Eric Schmitt’s Senate Bill 5 to reign in traffic court abuses in Missouri.

Here’s some perspective:

  • St. Louis County accounts for 22 percent of Missouri’s population and over 50 percent of traffic tickets
  • St. Ann’s traffic court revenue exploded from about $500,000 in 2009 to over $3.5 million last year
  • Traffic court generates 90 percent of the total revenue for one Missouri city
  • Ferguson, Missouri, has three outstanding traffic ticket warrants for every citizen
  • The mayor of Edmundson in North St. Louis County wrote a memo to his police chief admonishing him to write more tickets or face wage and job cuts

I testified immediately following a representative from the ACLU. While this isn’t the first time St. Louis Tea Party Coalition and the ACLU have worked together on an issue, the fact we both see the same problem should tell you the problem is real.

The opposition to the bill came mostly from small town mayors who don’t want to lose revenue. They’ve become addicted to the fees from tickets and failure-to-appear warrants (typically $600). The other opposition came from my State Senator, Bill Schatz who questioned whether SB 5 would give drivers a green light to tool around like maniacs.

We Need the Money

First, let’s look at the revenue argument put forth by the mayors with support from the Municipal League, sort of a union of small town mayors and city managers. These mayors argue that without ticket revenue, they may have to disband their police departments.

Clearly, these mayors are not interested in safety. If safety, rather than revenue, were the concern, engineers could devise roads to force people to drive slower. Several European cities have designed streets that force slow, attentive driving and eliminated speed limits and stop signs. The result is slower speed, fewer accidents, and faster throughput.  In other words, you get where you’re going in less time.

If cities like St. Ann, Edmundon, and Bel Ridge followed the safe streets example, their ticket revenue would dry up faster than pony keg at an Irish wake. And, if safety were their concern, they’d do it. But safety is not their concern. Money is.

We know, for instance, that municipalities that install red-light cameras soon shave time off the yellow lights to generate more revenue. These cities don’t care about safety. They care about money and they’re willing to endanger drivers and passengers to get more money.

CD Baby’s founder Derek Sivers described the problem. If your company is in business to solve a problem instead of just treating the symptoms, the money will dry up. So companies–and cities–have an incentive to keep the problem around so they can fix it for a fee.

Senate Bill 5 seeks to lower the cap on traffic revenue to 10 percent of a city’s revenue from 30 percent. Cities would still be able to write all the tickets they wanted. They just wouldn’t profit from the practice. The tickets would promote safety. Excess revenue would go to fund Missouri’s schools. (I would rather the money went into the highway fund, but that’s for a later blog.)

So mayors don’t want drivers to slow down or to stop at red lights. They want drivers to break the law so their cities can generate revenue. They want to keep the problem around so their police and courts can keep profiting from it. And that’s just wrong.

We Need the Deterrent

Now, to Senator Schatz’s point that speed traps and heavy fines deter bad driving. They don’t.

Senator Schatz’s asked the ACLU Director of Advocacy and Policy, Sarah Rossi, what she would recommend as an effective deterrent to speeding if not fines.

I have to respond to Senator Schatz with a question: if St. Ann’s ticket revenue went from $500,000 to $3.5 million in six years, what makes you think fines do a damn bit of good at all?

They don’t. And the idea of “taxation by citation,” as Senator Schmitt calls it, should enrage citizens. The practice of maintaining a police department primarily to ticket to citizens is appalling. And it supports a level of government that’s inappropriately large.

In the city of Greendale in North St. Louis County, for instance, government is the town’s only industry at $3.5 million a year for 1,800 citizens. Vinita Park, Missouri, whose mayor McGee testified, is a town less than two square miles, but on any given day Vinita Park has over 200 people on a traffic ticket payment plan. By definition, people who need a loan to pay a speeding ticket are not wealthy, so McGee’s government is living off the backs of the poor.

Support Senate Bill 5

If you oppose taxation by citation, please write your state representative and senator, asking him or her to support Eric Schmitt’s SB5. The last thing we should expect from local government is to condition people to cow to government overlords.

And slow down. Without speeders and stop-runners, the small towns would have to muster up the courage to ask citizens for a tax increase or muster up the humility to reduce the size of government.

Now, check out Senator Schmitt’s interview with McGraw Milhaven on KTRS.

Do Police Officers Like Writing Tickets?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

What do police officer think about traffic ticket quotas? Here’s one officer’s thoughts:

In my agency, those of us in patrol had to keep a “Daily.” This would be a formal document that showed the times, addresses where we went, written in code, of what we had done.

On the back were boxes for how many traffic citations, criminal citations, parking citations and felony and misdemeanor arrests we had made on that day.

I frequently commented that the form didn’t represent how many people we stopped from committing suicide. Or how many domestic disputes we settled or how many missing children we found. So that “daily” never really adequately represented what my day really involved and often, by the numbers, could look as though I did nothing at all.

Read Quote of India L. J. Mitchell’s answer to Do police officers have monthly ticket quotas? on Quora

My dad was a city police officers in the 1950s and 1960s.

We were talking about cities that use the police force as a taxing agency last week. I gathered that my dad’s captain thought he was a little lax in issuing citations.

“My captain’d say, ‘why aren’t you writing more tickets, Hennessy?'” Dad told me. “And I’d say, ‘I didn’t see anybody do anything wrong.'”

One time his sergeant rode with him. The sergeant wanted to show him how to spot a moving violation. “Follow anybody for 5 minutes, and they’ll commit a violation,” the sergeant told him.

The sergeant spotted a car with a burned-out headlight. “Get him,” he told my dad.

“He’s got his family in the car, Sergeant.”

“I don’t care, Hennessy. It’s a violation. Pull him over.”

So my dad did.

“I’m sorry to do this to you with your family in the car, but my sergeant’s with me,” my dad told the driver.

The driver said, “I understand, officer. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but did you know you have a headlight out too?”

My dad looked back at the cruiser. Sure enough, a headlight was out.

“Gimme that ticket back,” he told the driver.

When Dad got back in the cruiser, he told his sergeant, “we have a burned out headlight, too, so I tore up the ticket.”

The sergeant, embarrassed, said, “just take me back to station. And get this car fixed.”

Police have a duty to enforce the law. Dangerous stretches of road require additional policing and strict enforcement of codes. I would never argue otherwise.

But there real value of police officers is their service. Like the officer quoted at the top  of this post said. Cities that use their police and courts to raise revenue don’t count lives saved or disasters averted when rating officers.

My dad liked being a presence in the community. He preferred walking the beat on foot patrol to riding in a car. “You never know what’s going on in a car,” he told me. “And nobody knew who you were.”

Ordinances are intended to increase safety and minimize danger to citizens. They’re not revenue streams. At least they shouldn’t be. The fine associated with safety tickets is a deterrent to the violator, not a tax for the government.

But too many St. Louis County cities use police and courts as a hidden tax on residents, visitors, and transients. Then people lose faith in police, in courts, and in the “system.” As Arch City Defenders found:

Many residents feel that municipal courts exist to collect fine revenue, not to dispense justice. “Absolutely they don’t want nothing but your money,” one defendant said, but “you get people out here who don’t make a whole lot of money.”38 He then described the startlingly common experience of being arrested, jailed, and instructed to call everybody he could think of who might have money to pay his fine—with the promise of three or four days in jail if he could not cobble together the sum.

That’s called a shakedown. How do shakedowns promote safety or dispense justice?

They don’t. They just piss people off and destroy communities.

I’m not excusing or condoning the terrorism that went on in Ferguson  I’m saying some St. Louis County municipalities abuse their police and courts, making residents despise and distrust the law. And when the people distrust the law, the lawless have an open door to wreck havoc on the community.

And, to some degree, that’s what happened. That’s what Tom Schweich, Eric Schmitt, and others are trying to fix.

What No One Tells You About Ferguson

Reading Time: 6 minutes

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
–“For What It’s Worth” by The Buffalo Springfield

“This isn’t about Michael Brown.”

Those words popped out of my mouth as I watched the Sunday evening news with my dad. It was August 10.

Full-scale rioting hadn’t erupted, but the battle lines were drawn: police on one side, people, mostly young people, on the other.

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

St. Louis County has 91 municipalities. On the other side of the state, Jackson County, similar in area and population to St. Louis County, has 14.

Those 91 municipalities compete with their neighbors for business and residents. And revenue. To compete, these cities promise services and systems to current and potential residents.

Services and systems cost money.

For decades, especially the decades after World War II, cities like Ferguson relied on burgeoning populations and suburban migration to fund municipal services. To attract housing developers, shopping mall developers, and manufacturers, cities built skating rinks, water parks, and recreation centers from the late 1940s to late 1990s–the post-war.

Demographics

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I re-read the paragraph three or four times to make sure I got it right. Then, I put the book down to ponder its meaning.

Thomas Barnett, a Harvard and Pentagon Russian scholar, wrote a book in 2003 about the post-Cold War era. The book is fantastic, but one idea stood out:

World human population would reach its peak around 2050.

Why did that knock me on keester?

For all of human history, human population only grew. Sure, some catastrophes temporarily knocked the people count back a bit: the black plague, the Spanish Flu, WWII. But those were rare, mass disasters. What Barnett predicted is not a disaster, but a part of human evolution: Peak Humanity.

The consequences of falling population are huge, and only a few scholars even to think about what it might mean.  Some consequences:

  • Aging population
  • Rising healthcare costs as a percentage of total spending
  • Housing gluts
  • Falling aggregate demand for goods and services
  • Abandoned cities
  • Shortage of physical laborers
  • Reduced wealth
  • Government defaults
  • Empty pension accounts

To some degree, civilization is a Ponzi scheme. As long as the next generation is bigger than the last, everything’s cool.

We borrowed money in the 1950s and 1960s to build huge high schools. Then, the high school population peaked in 1982, the year I graduated. (Coincidentally, drug use and teen drinking also peaked that year.) Because of that, my alma mater, Bishop DuBourg High School, has a completely unused 4th floor and lots of repurposed classroom space on the other floors. Built in the 1950s to house 3,000 students, the building now hosts fewer than 600–about the size of my graduating class.

The Millennials will be the largest generation in American history. And the first wave of Millennials are in their 30s.

What’s become clear to me since reading Barnett’s book in 2004 is that Peak Humanity is unevenly distributed.

Japan reached its zenith in the 1980s–and its economy stagnated. Europe peaked in the 1990s–and its economy stagnated. The United States, ex-immigration, sits at its peak right now.

Why does it matter? As geopolitical strategist George Friedman points out in his book Then Next 100 Years:

Traditionally, declining population has meant declining power. For Europe, this will indeed be the case. But for other countries, like the United States, maintaining population levels, or finding technological ways to augment a declining population, will be essential if political power is be retained in the next hundred years.

While Friedman and Barnett concerned themselves with national and global issues of population decline, we can scale down the effects of shrinking populations to the municipal or even township level.

Detroit, for example, was the wealthiest city in the world for half of the twentieth century. Not New York or London, but Detroit. The automobile, geography, and prohibition contributed to Detroit’s economic power, but population growth was both a cause and an effect.

Where is Detroit today? Since the 1950s, Detroit has lost more than 60 percent of its population. At first, people moved to the suburbs. More recently, people have fled the region entirely. Detroit is bankrupt, and its political leaders are looking for ways to dismantle much of the city’s buildings and infrastructure.

St. Louis City has lost almost two-thirds of its population over the same period. Like Detroit, the exodus to the suburbs, like Ferguson, kept the region strong. But St. Louis County has been losing population since the late 1990s, and that trend is likely to continue. If St. Louis County re-absorbs St. Louis City in the future, that population decline will accelerate.

What’s more important than the macro-migration pattern is the micro-migration pattern. The middle class moves the farthest and the fastest. The wealthy follow. The poor stay. As the city declines, rich liberals push government to provide more and more services to the remaining poor. Businesses push government to provide more attractions and distractions to pull in revenue from visitors. But the tax base shrinks.

As the wealthy finally abandon the decaying cities, power shifts to community representatives of the poor–representatives whose only skill is pushing government for more poverty programs, services, and hand-outs. But they demand these services of governments facing shrinking tax bases.

What happens next? At this point, cities turn their police departments into tax collectors. Contemporary Sheriffs of Nottingham who take from the poor and give to the government. “To protect and serve,” comes to mean “to protect the government’s revenue and to serve warrants upon the indigent.”

Growing up in South St. Louis with a father who served on the St. Louis Police Department for a decade, we learned to respect police officers. The Officer Friendly program brought city police into schools to talk to kids about their jobs.

By the time we got our driver’s licenses, we were experts at navigating around St. Louis’s infamous speed traps. Marlborough, a tiny village just outside the city limits along Watson Road and home of the Coral Courts Motel, was the most notorious.

Marlborough rose along Route 66 and prospered during America’s westward migration. Post-war travellers to the Grand Canyon and magical California breathed economic life into towns Marlborough. By 1970, I-70, the nation’s first interstate highway, conspired with air travel to starve Marlborough of its primary source of revenue: transient vacationers.

Wanting to hold onto its power despite its transient population decline, Marlborough’s leaders ironically turned upon the very instrument of its growth: the car and driver. With fewer visitors to its hotels, restaurants, and shops, Marlborough set up multiple speed traps and confusing traffic ordinances to extract money from drivers, resident or not.

As young drivers, often hauling a cooler of Micholob Light in the trunk, we avoided Marlborough like the plague.

Since the early 80s, more speed traps have emerged in St. Louis County. Ballwin, Bel-Ridge, Breckenridge Hills, St. Ann, Bridgeton, Beverly Hills, Glendale, and many more.

The city police still have a reputation for using the traffic ticket for safety. But the city police are dying breed. If St. Louis County is increasingly a modern day Nottinghamshire where police officers use the power of their office to tax residents through tickets for petty  ordinance violations.

On top of the onerous ticketing policies, municipal courts serve as backup revenue generators. Florissant recently held traffic court in a school gymnasium because of so many defendants. The courts assess contempt fines for bizarre violations, like clothing, chewing gum, and even talking quietly to a neighbor. A fifty-dollar ticket can quickly turn in to a $800 fine with contempt and failure to appear charges.

One woman told me her grandmother was cited for leaving three trash cans at the curb after 3:00 pm on trash day. The fine was $150 per can, or $450. The woman couldn’t afford to pay and she doesn’t go out after dark, so she missed her court date. A warrant and a $600 fine for failure to appear.

Whatever that woman was taught to think of police officers as a little girl in 1950s, imagine her opinion of the profession today. Imagine her “respect” for the court system? For the rule of law?

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

“This isn’t about Michael Brown.”

And it never was. The riots of August were about big government. They were about governments that gorged themselves on growing populations, bribed residents with services and distractions that governments should never offer, and politicians who bought loyalty with high-paying, taxpayer-funded jobs. Now, those governments feed off the poor to maintain the government’s bloated lifestyle.

Michael Brown was only a spark. Tax-collection through police was the kindling. Abusive municipal courts were the gasoline.

Now, Ferguson plans to pay for clean-up efforts with . . . you guessed . . . increased fines.

I couldn’t believe the opening paragraph of this story from Bloomberg:

Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.

(h/t ZeroHedge)

The stupidity of government knows no bounds. It’s time we stop.

And now for my favorite song from the 60s

Here’s What’s Happening on the Muni Courts Front

Reading Time: 2 minutes

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

— The Declaration of Independence

Back in August, I asked for your help in pushing for municipal court reform.

Cities that abuse their police and courts destroy liberty:

Together, these offenses against liberty and decency rise to the level offenses against which we rebelled in the 18th century.

Auditor Schweich’s Municipal Courts Project

In November, State Auditor Tom Schweich announced the Municipal Courts Project. The Auditor will audit 10 municipalities suspected of violating state limits on fines from traffic tickets. Missouri law requires cities to forfeit to the state revenues from traffic tickets that exceed 30 percent of total revenue.

The law does not prevent cities from enforcing traffic laws for safety. The intends to limit financial incentives for cities to write lots of tickets. I had the honor to stand with Republicans–Auditor Schweich and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann–and Democrats–State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal and State Rep Scott Sifton–as Auditor Schweich announced the project.

Senator Schmitt Steps Up

Today, I had the pleasure to meet with State Senator Eric Schmitt to learn about his efforts to further crack down on the courts. Senator Schmitt has pre-filed legislation for the next general assembly that would reduce the traffic revenue limit to 10 percent from 30 percent. Senator Schmitt and I discussed further legislation, such as:

  • additional penalties for city official who knowingly fail to forfeit excess funds
  • requiring that municipal courts be open to the public
  • prohibiting cities from barring families and children from municipal courts
  • prohibiting cities form locking out defendants before their case is called
  • forcing cities to include all fines, fees, and warrants to the ticket revenue
  • limiting cities’ power to jail people over non-criminal traffic violations (with exceptions for flagrant violations of the court system)

I also recommended as witnesses several people who contacted me about their experiences with municipal courts. And I learned that friend of liberty, State Rep. Paul Curtman, will handle the bill in the House.

Action

Please write your State Representative and State Senator to let them know you support Senator Schmitt’s municipal courts reform. He expects strong opposition from the Municipal League–sort of union for city managers and consultants. This being a bipartisan issue with a strong liberty theme, opponents risk marginalizing themselves.

And say “Thanks” to Tom Schweich (moaudit@auditor.mo.gov) and Eric Schmitt(eschmitt@senate.mo.gov) for stepping up on behalf of people who need a voice in government.