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Study: cities rely more on fines for revenue if they have more black residents

The study also offers a potential solution: Elect more black people to local government.

A police car. Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you want to stop police from disproportionately ticketing black communities, a recent study has one potential answer: Elect more black people to local government.

The study, by political science researchers Michael Sances of the University of Memphis and Hye Young You of Vanderbilt University, had two major findings.

Using data from more than 9,000 cities, the researchers first found that cities with larger black populations rely more on fines and court fees to raise revenue. The average collection was about $8 per person for all cities that get at least some revenue from fines and fees, but that rose to as much as $20 per person in the cities with the highest black populations. The findings persisted even after controlling for other factors, such as differences in crime rates and the size of cities.

Then the researchers wanted to look at how much this disparity would be alleviated if at least one black person is on the city council. Using a smaller sample of about 3,700 cities due to data limitations, they found that having at least one black person on the city council reduced the relationship between race and fines by about 50 percent.

“What a lot of cities do is rely on a source of revenue that falls disproportionately on their black residents,” Sances told me. “And when blacks gain representation on the city council, this relationship gets a lot better. The situation doesn’t become perfect, but it becomes alleviated to a great extent.”

The study does not prove causation, and the researchers caution against drawing definitive conclusions from just one study. Although they tried to control for all sorts of variables that could explain the findings, it’s always possible that something else is going on that they missed. The researchers hope to address some of these limitations in future studies.

Nonetheless, the study’s findings are corroborated by a lot of evidence we’ve seen over the past few years — particularly since Black Lives Matter protests rose up in Ferguson, Missouri, following the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. Time and time again, we’ve seen that when cash-strapped cities need revenue, they use their police departments to ticket vulnerable populations, particularly racial minorities.

The study adds to the existing evidence by offering a potential solution: electing more black representation to local governments. The researchers can’t definitively explain why this is the case. But one possibility is that black politicians are more receptive to black voters’ concerns, so they’ll often hear complaints about fines from their black constituents and tell the local police department to stop exploitative practices.

One caveat, though, is that the researchers don’t expect even full black representation to completely solve this problem. “There’s a degree of influence there for sure,” Sances said. But “we don’t assume city councils have perfect control over the police.”

The study gives more evidence to a long-existing concern

The exploitation of black populations for local revenue is not new. This has often been a big concern in many cities with large black populations, including Ferguson.

After Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, the US Department of Justice released a report validating many of these concerns. The March 2015 report found that city officials worked together at every level of enforcement — from city management to the local prosecutor to the police department — to make as much money from fines and court fees as possible, ranging from schemes to raise total fines for municipal code violations to asking cops to write as many citations as possible.

Law enforcement appeared to deliberately target black residents: Although black people made up about 67 percent of Ferguson's population, about 85 percent of the people stopped and about 90 percent of the people who received a citation were black.

So what explains this? One possibility is that police are simply targeting the people who are most vulnerable and less likely to have any political clout.

Some cops have admitted to this. “When you put any type of numbers on a police officer to perform, we are going to go to the most vulnerable,” Adhyl Polanco, a New York City police officer, told WNBC last year. “We’re going to [the] LGBT community, we’re going to the black community, we’re going to go to those people that have no boat, that have no power.”

Indeed, Sances named this as one of the possible explanations for his study’s findings. “These city officials are taking advantage of a population that’s basically voiceless,” he told me.

This would also explain why local black representation seems to offer a bulwark against the problem: By electing a black council member who’s more likely to listen to black voters’ concerns, black populations see their political clout — and ability to complain about potential police exploitation — grow.

These kinds of issues lead to more distrust in the law, which can lead to more crime

The practices exposed by the study are not only unfair but also may make it more difficult for police to do their chief job: fight crime.

The idea, known as “legal cynicism,” is simple: The government is going to have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don’t trust it or its laws.

This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.

There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.

They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent (22,200) fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.

But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They note that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”

That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own — sometimes violent — means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.

“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers write, but “they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”

The fiscal exploitation of black communities could have the same effect. When you’re pulled over as many as dozens of times for petty offenses, you’re going to be much less likely to trust the police are working to keep you safe — and much less likely to call on them when you need help. And that could ultimately make it much harder for police to do their jobs.

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