Arrests Form Financial Bedrock Across St. Louis County TownsTim Jones
The lifeblood of the tiny St. Louis suburb of Beverly Hills is lawbreakers, whose traffic fines account for more than half the annual revenue. In nearby St. Ann, 39 percent of the general-fund budget comes from court fines and fees.
In north St. Louis County, a predominantly black area where the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, penance for crimes and misdemeanors pays to fix streets, pay workers’ salaries and pick up trash. In places once sustained by jobs at auto and aerospace factories, towns and cities that have been losing population rely on scofflaws for funds.
“It’s a reflection of the economy,” said Beverly Hills Mayor Myrtle Spann, whose town has dwindled to 570 residents. “It’s not a money grab -- this is a basis for us to stay abreast of what we need to do.”
An examination of annual financial reports and other sources showed four communities in northern St. Louis County drew at least 20 percent of their general-fund revenue from fines, while another four collected between 10 and 19 percent.
As municipalities in Missouri and across the nation dealt with the financial fallout of the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, reliance on that income grew rapidly. In St. Ann, for instance, such revenue tripled from 2010 to 2013, reaching $3.4 million. That’s about what the town of 13,000 pays to run the police department that brings in the money.
Many residents complain that warrants for petty traffic violations can snowball into thousands of dollars and keep them from their jobs. Jimmy Lee Walker, a St. Louis resident, faces $1,800 in fines from the Maryland Heights Municipal Court, stemming from a $375 ticket in 2012 for driving with a suspended license. A third of that penalty -- $625 -- came from his failure to appear in court five times, records show.
On Sept. 8, Walker didn’t present himself again as several dozen people were summoned, most of them for traffic charges. His attorney, St. Louis University law professor John Ammann, couldn’t say why his client didn’t join the parade of defendants lining up to the right of the judge’s bench to await a dispensation of justice that took just minutes per case.
Critics say the reliance on fines is rooted in bigotry and has undermined relations between police and black residents in the northern part of the county.
“We’ve become a national embarrassment,” said Ammann, who was among lawyers who petitioned Ferguson Mayor James Knowles to forgive fines and warrants to improve relations between the city’s 67 percent black population and the white-dominated police department.
The city council in Ferguson, which last year drew 20 percent of its general-fund revenue from court fines and had outstanding warrants totaling 40,560 -- almost twice its population -- on Sept. 8 announced a warrant amnesty and said it would cut its general-fund reliance on citations to no more than 15 percent.
“The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson’s courts and police department,” council member Mark Byrne said in a press release.
However, as cities pull back on punishment, they also may decrease services. Fines in Ferguson last year amounted to $2.6 million, slightly exceeding the $2.4 million budgeted for street and highway maintenance. Florissant last year drew $3 million, or 13 percent of its revenue, from court fines and fees, roughly the amount of its capital-improvement fund.
A reduction would be challenging in Beverly Hills, a flyspeck of less than a 1/10 of a square mile (26 hectares) that lost about 15 percent of its population between 1990 and 2012. The movements of residents -- and especially interloping drivers -- are watched by a police force of 12.
That’s a concentration of law enforcement that in Chicago, with 2.7 million people, would total about 57,000 officers, almost five times its current force.
Violent crime in Beverly Hills is rare -- there hasn’t been a homicide or rape in more than a decade, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol data. Yet officers made 646 arrests last year.
“You deter crime by patrolling, not just responding,” said Brian Jackson, who chairs the Beverly Hills board of aldermen. “People complain about the tickets? Well, don’t break the law.”
Court-related revenue totaled $415,000 last year, including $340,000 in fines, according to budget documents. That surpassed the total of all taxes collected and provided all the money to cover the town’s payroll and benefits.
The crackdowns build the case for some towns to be dissolved, said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The county has more than 90 municipalities, excluding St. Louis itself, and 36 have populations smaller than 2,000.
“You’re trying to run a small municipality of a thousand or 1,500, each with their own councils and police departments and courts, and you only have a tax base of a thousand or so,” Rosenfeld said. “So you rely on traffic fines. They’d be better off merging with someone else.”
That rarely happens. Voters in the southern suburb of St. George disincorporated their home in 2011 and had governance taken over by St. Louis County. The town of about 1,000 was a speed trap and police operations were the government’s reason for being, said Carmen Wilkerson, a former alderman who led the effort to dissolve it.
“It’s policing for profit, and that’s a real problem,” Wilkerson said. “And it ends up being police departments writing tickets to justify their existence.”
Spann of Beverly Hills is a retiree from McDonnell Douglas, the aircraft maker acquired in 1997 by Boeing Co. She said her 81-year-old town has begun sensitivity training and sexual harassment training for officers.
“All of us are under the microscope because of Ferguson,” Spann said.
If there are second thoughts about policing, they aren’t apparent in Flordell Hills. The town of 822 will start its own six-member police force Oct. 1.