[Note: This item comes from friend Ed DeWath. DLH]
Fleece Force: How Police And Courts Around Ferguson Bully Residents And Collect Millions
By Ryan J. Reilly & Mariah Stewart
Mar 26 2015
PASADENA HILLS, Mo. — “Lacee Scott?” the judge called. The 23-year-old rose from a hard black plastic chair, walked past the fireplace and stood before the table at the front of the living room.
From the outside, the house is barely distinguishable from others on the street — brick, three bedrooms, built in 1948. Over the entrance, however, there is a sign identifying it as City Hall. Once a month, the living room, with its lamps, hardwood floors and clock on the mantle, becomes a courtroom. Those with business before the judge first check in with the clerk in the dining room before taking a seat among the rows of chairs set up in the family room.
Scott, a senior at Alabama A&M University, had lived in Pasadena Hills during high school. Her father, a former St. Louis County police officer, works for Walgreens. Her mother is the principal of a local elementary school. Last summer, when Scott was home visiting her family, a notice was placed on her car.
Parking had never been an issue in her quiet, suburban community. Pasadena Hills is small, with a population of less than 1,000. But the municipality had recently passed an ordinance requiring those parking overnight to display a $10 residential parking sticker on their vehicles. The notice ordered Scott to come to City Hall to obtain the sticker.
The city office has extemely limited business hours, however. The seven-hour drive from Huntsville, Alabama, back to Pasadena Hills also made it difficult for Scott to appear in person. Soon, the city began mailing her threatening letters.
“They sent me a letter and said there would be a warrant out for my arrest if I didn’t come back for this,” Scott told The Huffington Post of her court appearance. “For $10. For parking in front of my house.”
Such experiences are not uncommon in St. Louis County. According to a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice released this month, authorities in nearby Ferguson routinely abused the rights of residents, who were viewed “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” Attorney General Eric Holder said the Ferguson Police Department had essentially served as a “collection agency,” with officers competing to see who could issue the largest number of citations.
A number of Ferguson officials have resigned in the wake of the DOJ report, including the police chief, Thomas Jackson, and the municipal court judge, Ronald Brockmeyer. Yet the problems with municipal courts in St. Louis County extend far beyond Ferguson.
In dozens of interviews with The Huffington Post over the past several months, residents have called the system “out of control,” “inhumane,” “crazy,” “racist,” “unprofessional” and “sickening.” Some have told stories of being slapped with large fines for minor violations and threatened with jail if they couldn’t pay.
“Everyone’s got a horror story about the police,” former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told HuffPost in a recent interview. “And most of that horror story relates back to being ticketed for some minor violation.”
Even before the DOJ released its report, the need to change the way St. Louis County’s many tiny municipalities operate had become a rallying cry among protesters, lawmakers and even members of law enforcement.
Last year, Missouri’s attorney general filed suit against several municipalities for violating state law regarding the collection of revenue through traffic fines.
In December, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson said he believed some municipalities “victimize those whom they are designed to protect.” In February, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called some of the current practices “immoral.”
“If you think that taxation of our citizens through traffic enforcement in St. Louis County is bad, you have no idea how bad it is,” Belmar said.
There are 90 separate municipalities in all, home to 11 percent of Missouri’s total population. The largest is Florissant, an area of 12 square miles with over 52,000 residents. The smallest, the village of Champ, has just six houses. Population: 13.
Police are an overwhelming presence in St. Louis County. Nationally, the United States has roughly 2.4 police officers for every 1,000 residents, according to FBI statistics. In many parts of St. Louis County, the ratio is much higher. Beverly Hills, Missouri, with fewer than 600 people covering just 13 blocks, has 14 officers on its police force.
As in Ferguson, many of these police departments and local courts generate massive amounts of revenue for city coffers. Municipalities in St. Louis County took in $45 million in fines and fees in 2013 — 34 percent of the amount collected statewide — according to Better Together St. Louis, a nonprofit working to improve municipal government in the St. Louis region.
The municipal courts lie at the heart of this system. There are 81 in all. Some are housed in government buildings that were built for public use. Others, like the ones in Pasadena Hills or nearby Country Club Hills, have been set up in buildings designed as residential homes. Kinloch holds court in the cafeteria of an abandoned elementary school. In Beverly Hills, the police department and court share a building with a pharmacy. There’s an ATM in the lobby, and a payday loan outlet is conveniently located next door.
The reach of these courts extends beyond traffic and parking violations. Some municipalities require occupancy permits for those who live in their jurisdictions, which in practice means people can be fined for sleeping over at their boyfriend or girlfriend’s house. In some municipalities, overgrown grass or failing to subscribe to a designated trash collection service are offenses that can ultimately lead to an arrest record.
Even clothing choices can be a target. Pine Lawn has a municipal code that bans saggy pants. One man received a $50 fine in 2012 for wearing pants that were too big for his waist, according to court documents. After he missed two court dates associated with his fashion crime, he was slapped with two additional $125 fines, and for a time, there was a warrant out for his arrest.