U.S. News

08.22.14

Ferguson Feeds Off the Poor: Three Warrants a Year Per Household

In the chamber where Officer Darren Wilson received a commendation six months before killing Michael Brown, a minor court generates major money from the city’s poor and working people.

The Ferguson Police have now released a video that shows police Officer Darren Wilson receiving a commendation six months before he became known to the whole nation as the cop who gunned down an unarmed 18-year-old.

The irony is obvious to anyone who watches the footage of this proud young officer receiving the award at a ceremony in the City Council chamber as Ferguson’s six council members applaud.

“Officer Wilson, in recognition of outstanding police work while investigating a suspicious-vehicle call,” Chief Thomas Jackson says in making the presentation. “Acting alone, you struggled with one subject and [were] able to gain control of the subject and his car keys until assistance arrived. Later, during the interview, it was discovered that the subject was breaking down a large quantity of marijuana for sale.”

Jackson adds, “Great job, Darren.”

But there is another, unnoticed irony in the venue itself. Three times a month—one day and two nights—the City Council chamber also serves as home to the incredibly busy and extremely profitable Ferguson municipal court.

A report issued just last week by the nonprofit lawyer’s group ArchCity Defenders notes that in the court’s 36 three-hour sessions in 2013, it handled 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. That is an average of 1.5 cases and three warrants per Ferguson household. Fines and court fees for the year in this city of just 21,000 people totaled $2,635,400.

The sum made the municipal court the city’s second-biggest source of revenue. It also almost certainly was a major factor in the antagonism between the police and the citizenry preceding the tragedy that resulted when Wilson had another encounter with a subject six months after he got his commendation.

And any complete investigation into how Michael Brown came to be sprawled dead in the street with a half-dozen bullet wounds must consider not just the cop but the system he served, a system whose primary components include a minor court that generates major money, much of it from poor and working people.

Five of the six City Council members who meet in this chamber are white, even though the city itself is more than 70 percent black. The City Council appoints the municipal judge, currently Ron Brockmeyer, who is also white.

But when this same chamber serves as Ferguson Municipal Court, a disproportionate number of the defendants are black.

The immediate explanation is that the bulk of the cases arise from car stops. The ArchCity Defenders report notes: “Whites comprise 29% of the population of Ferguson but just 12.7% of vehicle stops. After being stopped in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 6.9%) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4% vs. 5.2%).”

Lest anyone contend that blacks inherently merit greater police attention than whites, the report offers another statistic.

“Searches of black individuals result in discovery of contraband only 21.7% of the time, while similar searches of whites produce contraband 34.0% of the time.”

That would suggest both that whites were more likely to be stopped when there was actual probable cause and that blacks were more likely to be stopped when there was not. And the antagonism sure to be generated by such racial disparities was magnified by the sheer number of cases.

The report cites a court employee as saying the docket for a typical three-hour court session has up to 1,500 cases. The report goes on to say that “in addition to such heavy legal prosecution,” the Ferguson court and others like it in nearby towns “engage in a number of operational procedures that make it even more difficult for defendants to navigate the courts.”

The report goes on, “For example, a Ferguson court employee reported that the bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late to receive an additional charge for failure to appear.”

The lawyers of ArchCity Defenders specialize in representing the indigent and the homeless. They noticed that many of their clients had multiple warrants on minor charges issued by municipal courts in Ferguson and the other 80 municipalities in St. Louis County that have their own courts and police.

“They didn’t just have one case, they had 10 cases,” says Thomas Harvey, the organization’s 44-year-old executive director.

The warrants too often precluded the clients from securing shelter and services, and access to job programs. The lawyers sought some remedy in the issuing courts.

“It kept being about the money,” Harvey recalls. “We were telling the court, ‘They don’t have any money because they’re homeless.’”

That same venue where Wilson received his commendation and the City Council members applauded is where justice is insulted wholesale three times a week.

The clients felt sure they were being targeted because they were black and poor, and told the lawyers tales of unfair treatment by everybody from the cops to the bailiffs to the judges.

“I’ll be real honest, I didn’t believe them,” Harvey says.

With the help of college students, ArchCity Defenders started a court watch program eight months ago. They concluded that much of what their clients had been saying was all too true. Impoverished defendants were frequently ordered to pay fines that were triple their monthly income. Some ended up with no income at all as they sat in jail for weeks, awaiting a hearing.

ArchCity decided to focus on what seemed to be three of the worst cities.

“Three courts, Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create inefficiencies,” the subsequent report says.

The report was all but complete and just needed an introduction when Harvey went on summer vacation. He chanced to return the day after Michael Brown was shot to death by Officer Darren Warren.

“I got off the plane saying, ‘I got to finish this and get it out,'” Harvey recalls.

Harvey understood that whatever the particular details of the tragedy, there was also a larger context.

“It’s not just about Michael Brown and this officer,” Harvey says.

The statistics assembled for the report concerning race and car stops in Ferguson were no great surprise, especially considering that its police department is proportionately even whiter than its City Council, with just three blacks among its 52 cops. The number that jumped out was the huge revenue, big bucks for a little burg.

“Anybody who makes a revenue source a line of a budget becomes dependent on it,” Harvey suggests.

But if the system’s objective was money, the result was still that many people felt targeted because of race and class.

“For many of the poorest citizens of the region, the municipal courts and police departments inflict a kind of low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay without a meaningful inquiry into whether an individual has the means to pay,” the report says.

By the remarkable stats the report offers, Wilson might have been expected to add one more case to the municipal court excess by issuing Brown and his friend summonses for walking down the middle of the road.

Instead, Wilson seems to have simply ordered Brown off the road. His tone and Brown’s reactions seem to have reflected the long-standing tensions between police and young black men in particular.

Any effort to reduce those tensions in the wake of the tragic result had better include the chamber where the City Council meets and the municipal court convenes.

That same venue where Wilson received his commendation and the City Council members applauded is where justice is insulted wholesale three times a week.

And an entire city turns poisonous. The fury of the protesters was sparked not only by killing of Brown but by the circumstances that led up to it.

The Ferguson municipal court canceled its August sessions because of the turmoil, but it is expected to resume in September.

The next session is scheduled for 9/11, of all days.