Cops or Collection Agents? In Many Poor Communities, Police Seeking Fines End Up Firing Shots

The past three days have been brutal for any peace-loving citizen in the United States. After video emerged Wednesday of police tackling and then killing 37-year-old Alton Sterling—a black man whose crime was selling bootleg CDs outside of a Baton Rouge convenience store—the Justice Department opened a criminal probe into the officer who shot the father of five a total of four times. 

The following day in Minnesota, Diamond Reynolds posted to Facebook a haunting livestream of her boyfriend, 32-year-old Philando Castile, dying in the driver’s seat of his car after he was pulled over for a broken taillight and shot by police. Minnesota governor Mark Dayton called for the Justice Department to likewise investigate the shooting.

Both incidents sent shockwaves throughout the country; in dozens of cities peaceful protests erupted with demonstrators calling for the cops who gunned these men down to be brought to justice. And President Barack Obama, in an emotional speech, made it clear that “these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents.”

“They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve,” Obama said Thursday.

Then, late Thursday night following a protest in Dallas, the unimaginable happened. A single gunman, reportedly angered by the recent deaths of Castile and Sterling, but unaffiliated with the larger Black Lives Matter movement, opened fire on police officers who were monitoring and protecting the protest, killing five on-duty cops and wounding several more.

These sobering events don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re symptomatic of an unjust system that breeds resentment, and sometimes, horrifyingly, violence. These injustices are cyclical by nature: police crack down on communities, members of those communities feel targeted and disenfranchised, and the tension escalates to a boiling point. A tragedy occurs, members of marginalized communities recognize that their rights aren’t being protected, public distrust of police grows, police distrust of the public grows. Ad infinitum.

Jack Hitt, writing for Mother Jones, argues that part of the reason police crack down on communities, ultimately leading to the escalation of violence, is a result of an out-of-step police system, which, for many poor communities, functions more as a collection agency for the judicial branch than a means of protection for its citizens. For many of the headline-grabbing deaths of black citizens at the hands of police, a common thread exists: Victims are being targeted for relatively minor offenses. 

Sterling’s bootlegged CDs, Castile’s broken taillight, Eric Garner’s loose cigarettes, and Michael Brown’s jaywalking—all of their deaths began with a petty violation, eventually escalating to a point where the alleged criminal—whose crime would, at best, earn the city a couple hundred bucks—is suddenly stripped of all due process and killed at the hands of police. 

Regarding Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was shot, former attorney general Eric Holder said when a city is “primed for maximizing revenue—starting with fines and fine enforcement,” the focus of police shifts away from law enforcement toward a crackdown on small crimes that can fill the county coffers. In 2010 alone, Ferguson police generated $1.4 million for the city, first by issuing tickets and subsequently doling out fines to poor people who couldn’t afford to pay them. “This year, they will more than double that amount,” Hitt adds, “providing nearly a quarter of the city's $13 million budget, almost all of it extracted from its poorest African-American citizens.”

Castile’s mother alluded to the kind of profiling that takes place in the Falcon Heights neighborhood where her son was shot and killed. Police patrol the area frequently, mostly on the lookout for minor infractions. “We’re being hunted every day,” she told CNN. Castile’s cousin also told CNN the street where Castile was shot was a known target for police patrols, adding she'd been pulled over several times in order to verify that she had insurance.

“There is still no comprehensive study to determine just how many cities pay their bills by indenturing the poor,” Hitts writes. “But it is probably no coincidence that when you examine the recent rash of police killings, you find that the offenses they were initially stopped for were preposterously minor.”

This deep-seated distrust of police is not unwarranted by members of the black community, who bear much of the burden of this state-sanctioned racketeering, financial and otherwise. In order to address police brutality and put an end to the cycle of violence, police must focus first and foremost on their sworn duty: to “uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.”


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