Ferguson, Missouri, voters head to the polls Tuesday with a chance to overthrow the white City Council and all those who answer to it who have been blamed for keeping the town’s black residents broke and scared of police.
But it’s far from certain that a Ferguson City Council with more black members will change how the city is run. Black leaders may not necessarily mean better lives for black residents, a fact of life that anyone from Detroit or Newark could tell you about.
You don’t have to peer all the way to Motown to see this. In fact, all you have to do is look five miles down the road from Ferguson to Pine Lawn, Missouri.
Led by Sylvester Caldwell, Pine Lawn’s black mayor, a majority black City Council represents a 98 percent black population there. It’s no statistical surprise then that the majority of traffic stops are directed at African Americans, but the scope of those interactions with police are a bit staggering. Those pushing for reforms in Ferguson, Pine Lawn, and the rest of St. Louis County hope the area’s black residents who are affected by predatory policing show up at the polls in large numbers. That hasn’t been the case in Pine Lawn.
Last year, Caldwell bested a challenger by securing 430 of the 614 votes. That leaves about 2,500 residents of the city who didn’t vote for Caldwell, aka “The Cat,” the last time around, all of whom pay for his city-provided Dodge Charger and contribute to his $60,000 salary. (Caldwell has used that money, and whatever else he’s scrounged up from the John Does of Pine Lawn, to buy a home outside the city.)
In 2013, Pine Lawn police handed out more than five tickets per resident. That same year, the city’s municipal court made $2.2 million for Pine Lawn, more than $500,000 of that coming from the fines and fees netted from traffic offenses and other petty crimes.
In a 2011 report, the Missouri State Auditor found that the city’s police department overspent its budget by $255,855 the year before. Also that year, Pine Lawn’s budget “did not include many of the elements required by state law, such as beginning and ending cash balances and actual receipts and disbursements for the 2 preceding years,” the auditor noted.
In both Ferguson and Pine Lawn, police have been responsible for enforcing the rules of a municipal system that is addicted to the revenue from fines and fees. The distinction lies in the racial makeup of the two cities’ governments. While Ferguson’s overwhelmingly white leadership has come under international scrutiny for their practices, which led to the death of Michael Brown, Pine Lawn’s black leaders have received virtually no attention. Among those leaders is Anthony Gray, who is most know as the attorney for the family of Michael Brown but is probably more recognized in Pine Lawn as the city’s ex-police chief. Gray now moonlights as Pine Lawn’s prosecutor in addition to running his private law practice.
Caldwell has kept his mayoral status by winning 779 votes across the last two elections. He’s not on the ballot Tuesday—his term doesn’t expire until 2017—but his name will continue to be in the news for other reasons.
Now facing two counts of extortion, Caldwell has spent his time in office managing the same municipal system as Ferguson, where cops act as revenue collectors for the city. Some of the details of that arrangement are laid out in a lawsuit filed by two of the city’s finest, Milton Isaiah and Joseph Goforth.
The lawsuit claims that former chief of police Rickey Collins made his cops arrest as many people as they could and tow as many vehicles as they could. That worked in Caldwell’s favor because he had been allegedly bilking the owner of a towing company for under-the-table payments to secure the city’s prolific towing work. The Cat assured the owner, known in court documents only as John Doe, that Collins was doing his bidding. Collins passed those alleged directives down to his cops on the street.
“Collins directed that cars pulled over during traffic stops should be towed when the driver is arrested even if other individuals in the car are capable of driving it,” the officers’ suit alleges.
Isaiah and Goforth said they were disturbed by this and other commands from Collins, which reportedly included arresting “all individuals walking through the streets of Pine Lawn during late night or early morning.” The dissenting officers eventually complained to their superiors but to no avail. On Valentine’s Day 2011, the City Council voted to fire Isaiah and Goforth. Billed as a personnel decision, Caldwell didn’t have to publicly give reason for the terminations. He did the same two years later when Collins got the ax.
“Missouri municipal law basically shields all these municipalities” from explaining their inner-workings, said Michael Lawder, the attorney representing Isaiah and Goforth. The Missouri State Auditor reached a similar conclusion, noting in the 2011 report a legal hitch.
“The city often fails to document compliance with the [Missouri] Sunshine Law,” the report states. “Open meeting minutes do not always reflect a roll call vote to go into closed session and/or the specific reasons for closing the meeting.”
Transparency, it appears, is not as easy to come by in Pine Lawn as is cash from stoolie towing company owners.
The mayor and the police chief eventually came to what Collins would describe only as a “disagreement.” Collins was fired by the City Council in June 2013 and replaced by Gray. This past summer, at the same time Gray was utilizing his new stature as the Brown family attorney to criticize policing practices in Ferguson, he was working as Pine Lawn’s top cop, managing a department that overwhelmingly targeted black residents, and ticketed them in massive numbers. Those cops sent residents to the municipal court, which was expected to create $2.8 million in revenue last year.
Gray has defended his work at Pine Lawn’s police chief, and when residents showed up to protest the police department and municipal court in March, Gray told reporters, “It’s not like we’re pulling people over who were not violating the law.”
As graft goes, Caldwell’s alleged extortion of the tow-company owner was far from the worst. But his apparent insistence that police tow vehicles at every opportunity—no different than the decisions made by those in positions of power in Ferguson—goes to show that corruption is colorblind.