If a police officer’s first duty is “to serve and protect” the people, there could be no more damning condemnation than the Ferguson department’s primary goal: to “maximize revenue.”
The Justice Department’s Ferguson report describes, in obscene detail, how a predominately white police department waved off offenses by friends and family, all the while hounding the city’s black residents and running a money-making racket to protect police officers’ own jobs and power.
It wasn’t just the city’s police department that was corrupt. A judge and the city’s prosecutor were also implicated in a traffic-ticket fixing scheme, hammering black motorists with escalating fines and jail time.
Even for the St. Louis region, what happened in Ferguson is eye-popping. But it is also part of a larger pattern in which police departments nationwide target black motorists. In the 1990s, the Belleville, Illinois, News Democrat—a paper of which I am a proud alum—analyzed 175,000 traffic tickets to demonstrate an organized attempt to harass black drivers from the nearby city of East St. Louis. Even when they were confronted with the evidence, and a 60 Minutes follow-up, people didn’t want to accept the obvious truth.
The dangers of driving while black are so well known in American culture we all know the catch phrase.
Ferguson is not an outlier. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon knows the truth. That’s why he told the Kansas City Star “deep inside you, you know there are challenges throughout the state.”
There are challenges across America, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that black people are pulled over more often, and are far more likely to be searched by police than white drivers. Blacks are also twice as likely to experience the threat or use of violence at the hands of an officer than white or Hispanic drivers.
No wonder black and Hispanic drivers are also more likely to believe there was no legitimate reason for a traffic stop. “During both traffic and street stops, the majority of persons who were searched or frisked did not believe the police had a legitimate reason for the search,” the Bureau reports.
Consider the New Jersey Turnpike. According to a 2013 Sentencing Project report, “racial minorities made up 15 percent of drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike, yet 42 percent of stops and 73 percent of arrests made by police were of black drivers—even though white drivers and racial minorities violated traffic laws at almost identical rates.”
The same report showed “whites were less likely to be viewed as suspicious by police—even though stopped white drivers were twice as likely to be carrying illegal drugs as stopped black drivers and five times as likely to be carrying contraband as stopped Hispanic drivers.”
The situation in Ferguson was like a giant speed trap. Like racial profiling, speed traps are common. And they can be shut down. The city of Waldo, Florida, disbanded its police department after state and national media reported that the city received one-third of its revenue from traffic violations.
Five Waldo officers blew the whistle on the operation. Corruption crumbles faster when insiders come forward.
Unfortunately, no such group emerged from Ferguson, where “revenue building” was more important than tackling institutionalized racism. If such a group had arisen, the solidarity between black residents and white officers would have been a formidable force, and a welcome sight to see.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor to the Progressive Media Project. He currently resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.