By Eliezer Ihejirika
The last week has been marred by violence and conflict in ways none of us could have ever imagined…
…or could we?
I witnessed it in the tenth grade, when I was handcuffed at gunpoint by two police officers outside my school. The crime? I am black, so therefore I must have been part of a fight involving black teenagers that happened earlier across the street. If I had made a sudden move in that moment, with the officers’ guns trained on me from 20 yards away, they would have pulled their triggers, and I would not be here today to tell you about it. I would just be the next in a line of murdered black men like George Floyd – but with no videotape to record the truth of what happened.
The killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has struck a chord in a nation that has been devastated by the coronavirus and the lockdowns and economic disaster that has followed. Protests have broken out in dozens of cities across America, and some have been followed by violence, with people torching cars, battling police in riot gear and looting storefronts. That the violence has come in the midst of the anxiety around coronavirus has led many of us to despair. It seems like we should brace for bad news every morning we wake up and look at our phones.
How did we get here? Why are we surrounded by so much racial animosity and discord 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement? Wasn’t electing Barack Obama a sign that we had fixed all of this?
Well, it turns out that the devil is in the details. These high-profile incidents of police brutality against black men are symptoms of a much deeper systemic problem with policing in America, and if we want to solve it, we have to address some harsh realities.
BLACKS ARE MORE LIKELY TO GET PULLED OVER. PERIOD.
In a recent Stanford study of 200 million traffic stops nationwide, the results showed that black people are significantly more likely to be stopped by police than white people. The same study also revealed that white people who are searched are more likely to be found with contraband like illegal drugs and weapons.
A 2003 state-sponsored study of Minnesota traffic stops came to a similar conclusion. In that analysis, black people were stopped 214% more often than expected based on population, even though whites were twice as likely to be found with contraband.
It’s not just a perception – it’s reality.
Remember Philando Castile? He was the black man who was shot by police in his car in 2016 after the Minneapolis officer who pulled him over thought he was reaching for a gun. Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed the incident to Facebook from the passenger seat as he took his last blood-soaked breaths.
While so many people focused on the tragic shooting, few noticed a startling fact: even though Castile had no felony convictions, he had been pulled over an astounding 49 times in 13 years.
He received a variety of tickets for minor issues like tinted windows, broken taillights, and not signaling when turning… and when he couldn’t pay the fines off in time, his license was suspended, which led to even more citations.
As incredible as the number of stops seems, it’s also remarkable that he had so many encounters with police without incident. But as the studies show, stories like this are not the exception, but instead are highlights of a systemic problem.
So, it’s settled then. Police are targeting blacks unfairly and the data proves it. All police departments must be racist, right? Well, even though many problems associated with racial bias exist in our society, the answer is not that simple. We have to keep digging and follow the money.
… which leads to why many police are motivated to make stops in the first place.
TRAFFIC STOPS INCREASE GOVERNMENT REVENUE
According to research performed by Governing Magazine, fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of general fund revenues for over 600 local and regional governments in the United States. In hundreds of these counties, cities and towns, like Ferguson, Missouri, it accounts for over 20% of the revenue. Some jurisdictions get more than half their annual revenue from fines.
And at the state level, the raw numbers are staggering; in California, for example, traffic-related fines brought in over $500 million in revenue to the state in 2006. That means California made $500 million by catching people doing what most of us do every day without incident. When you’re talking half a billion dollars – or 20% to 50% of a city’s revenue – making money from traffic stops is a serious business. And like any business, the key is to target customers that will bring in the most dough.
So, how do you prioritize when every law-abiding citizen can be a customer?
POOR PEOPLE MAKE GOOD TARGETS FOR TRAFFIC REVENUE
There is one group that stands out when it comes to easy fleecing: the poor.
First, people struggling in poverty are more likely to have issues that lead to traffic citations, like a cracked front windshield, non-functioning taillights, or expired registration. Fixing each of these issues can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the circumstance.
Second, poor people are less likely to fight citations. Most cannot afford to take a day off of work to contest a traffic ticket or hire a traffic attorney to represent them. Violators who are unable to pay the fine in full may end up agreeing to a payment plan with the court, which increases the total payment amount in the end. And in states like California, where I grew up, if you do not pay the fine on time, you are assessed additional fees of up to $300 on top of the original fine.
Non-payment can eventually lead to license suspension, vehicle impounding, and arrest warrants. These all have the potential to ruin a person’s life. It’s worse than a loan shark – except it’s 100% legal. And it gives police departments an incentive to pull over people who are below the poverty line.
POVERTY DOMINATES BLACK COMMUNITIES
When looking at poverty demographics, the situation is clear: most black communities are low-income communities. The poverty rate for African Americans in the United States has been between 21% and 25% over the last decade - almost 3 times the poverty rate for whites. If a police officer pulls over a black person, he or she is almost 3 times more likely to be poor compared to a white person… which means a more promising revenue source for the government.
So, even if you don’t believe that white privilege exists, or that police officers have inherent racial bias, it doesn’t matter. Not only are black people unfairly targeted, every police officer has a strong financial motivation to target them. Even if the mayor and police chief of your city are black, you’ll probably be better off if you’re not.
MORE TRAFFIC STOPS LEADS TO MORE VIOLENCE
It’s one thing to meet someone in public, but it’s another to have every meeting feel like a stick of dynamite that’s waiting to be lit. Imagine if each time you interacted with a representative from the DMV or the post office, they approached you by surprise, they had a gun, they accused you of a crime and they demanded that you give them money if you wanted to be left alone… and you knew that if you refused to cooperate, you wouldn’t get home that night.
That’s what police encounters are like in many developing nations, where corruption doesn’t get dressed before going to work. But the only real difference between traffic stops in Minneapolis and Rio De Janeiro is that there are a few more layers of bureaucracy separating the government from your money. The extortion is sanctioned by whoever you voted for in the last election.
Yes, the chances that any single traffic stop in the United States will end in your injury or death are low. But the more encounters you have, the greater the odds are that one of them will be violent.
When you are “Driving While Black”, you are playing a dice game every time you leave your home. After all, if Philando Castile had only been pulled over 10 times, or 25, or 40, he would still be alive today – even though most white people will never get stopped that often in their lifetime. Eventually, if you get confronted enough times by armed men on a mission, your luck will run out.
Unfortunately, people unfamiliar with the average black man’s experience will only remember the last traffic stop shown on the local news and its aftermath – and not understand why so many other black men and women feel like they were shot as well.
We feel like we were shot because it could have been us.
TAKE MONEY OUT OF THE EQUATION
So, how can we start putting an end to this endless cycle of violence – without destroying our communities in the process? One solution is to follow the money.
Banning police department ticket quotas is a good start, and it’s one that some states have implemented. However, even without the individual incentive to write more tickets, the motivation to make money off of black people remains. To more effectively deal with it, we need to implement deeper solutions. For example, if traffic fines are based on the violator’s income, the scales could be balanced and the benefit of targeting poor people and minorities would be reduced. Income-based fines, also known as day fines, have been implemented in several European countries for decades. In a famous example, a Finnish multi-millionaire was fined $62000 for speeding in 2015.
Now, before people cry “America’s not socialist!” think about this: when the government takes revenue from citizens through income tax, property tax and sales tax, these fees are based on a percentage, right? A school cafeteria worker does not have to pay the same dollar amount in taxes as a Wall Street CEO, so why should he have to pay the same dollar amount in traffic fines?
Another option could be to require community service as payment for all traffic citations instead of resorting to fines and fees. This would eliminate the revenue incentive completely and focus law enforcement towards public safety instead of public fleecing. Governments could use the community service to partially make up for budget shortfalls, or better yet – they could reduce the police force and shrink the budget!
But it’s one thing to propose ideas like these and it’s another to make them reality. We’re talking about substantial shifts in the way the law enforcement and justice system work in this country. Fortunately, these shifts don’t require a Supreme Court victory, a Constitutional amendment, or a President from your favorite political party. Making change like this in your own town or city can be done at the ground level and have a major impact. Several cities in the United States, including Staten Island, New York and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have experimented with day fines in the past. And when provided with the right motivation and planning, cities large and small may consider taking up this and similar policy changes that bring fairness to traffic stops.
This is not the end of the story by any means, or the only story. There are still issues with the mass incarceration of people of color, biased police unions and unjust drug enforcement to resolve, among many others. And just like ending segregation in the South didn’t end racism overnight, taking money out of traffic stops won’t either.
But perhaps we can use this tragic situation as an opportunity to move from anger and grief to positive action, and, through a more equal sense of justice, we can save lives in the process. Then we can truly say that we heard the cries of innocent black men like George Floyd and Philando Castile.