This Week’s Outrage (which Touches on Civil Asset Forfeiture)

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Last month, The New York Times reported on the way that law enforcement officers take money from the rest of us. I’ve been alternately fascinated by and fuming about the article. It describes “a hidden scaffolding of financial incentives” that drives up the enforcement of traffic violations and push local governments “to repurpose armed officers as revenue agents searching for infractions largely unrelated to public safety.” The full article is well worth reading, but here are a few highlights:

  • “Many municipalities across the country rely heavily on ticket revenue and court fees to pay for government services, and some maintain outsize police departments to help generate that money.”
  • “The towns that depend most on such revenue have fewer than 30,000 people. Over 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10 percent of their revenue, enough to pay for an entire police force in some small communities.”
  • “They include Henderson, La., a town of about 2,000 people perched along Interstate 10 that collected $1.7 million in fines in 2019—89 percent of its general revenues—and where officers were accused of illegally receiving cash rewards for writing tickets. Oliver, Ga., with about 380 residents, gets more than half its budget from fines, but an investigation last year found that the local police had improperly written more than $40,000 in tickets outside their jurisdiction.”
  • “In Bratenahl, Ohio, the town government is so dependent on traffic enforcement that the police chief castigated his officers as ‘badge-wearing slugs’ in an email when a downturn in ticket writing jeopardized raises. Chief Richard Dolbow sent a blunt email to officers: “I will be looking at stats and scheduling to see what I should do to motivate the badge-wearing slugs that have fallen short on the promise and jeopardized our financial raises that we have worked so hard to maintain.’”
  • “Ticket revenue helped finance sheriff’s equipment in Amherst County, Va.; a ‘peace officers annuity and benefit fund’ in Doraville, Ga.; and police training in Connecticut, Oklahoma and South Carolina.”
  • “Some officers in Oklahoma, insistent that public safety is their goal, no longer cite drunken motorists for driving under the influence, and instead issue less-serious tickets that keep the drivers out of district court and generate more money for the town.”
  • “Fueling the culture of traffic stops is the federal government, which issues over $600 million a year in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket writing. Although federal officials say they do not impose quotas, at least 20 states have evaluated police performance on the number of traffic stops per hour.” In other words, the system of federal grants encourages applicants to use quotas as a performance metric.
  • “There is little doubt that these grants affect the economics, and frequency, of traffic stops. In an interview, Windsor’s police chief, Rodney Riddle, denied having ticket quotas, though he suggested the ‘bean counters’ in town hall might welcome the money. But in a January email to officers, obtained through an open-records request, the chief pushed for enough tickets to comply with the grant paying the hourly cost of patrols. ‘Please remember,’ he wrote, ‘that you are required to write a minimum of two tickets per hour while on grant time and there is zero tolerance.’”

This is a national scandal that includes widespread and official dishonesty, inefficient and unfair revenue collection methods, and budget mechanisms that corrupt government integrity. Strictly speaking, this article has little to do with the civil asset forfeiture scandals that I write about regularly. Nonetheless, it illustrates a dynamic that drives many of those scandals today: the unattractive result of policy makers’ decisions to opt for a kind of disguised taxation that encourages law enforcement officers to act less like trustees and more like predators.