Law enforcement veteran Russ Hamill said he can’t imagine that nearly every police officer in the U.S. isn’t reflecting on his or her department’s relationship with the community -- especially now, in the wake of fresh violence in Ferguson, Missouri. That city’s police department is roiling over charges of racial discrimination driven by the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man last year, and also by revenue-generating police tactics.
The relationship between police and residents is tenuous enough even without cases where cops have used lethal force, Hamill said, or, where police officers themselves have been shot, as they were early Thursday. “If the community believes that you are policing in a fashion that is not to protect and serve them, you can undermine the relationship that the department has built,” he said.
Hamill, assistant chief of the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at the University of Maryland, said he is not excusing violence against officers in communities like Ferguson or in larger places like New York City. But the idea that policing strategy should be revenue-driven, as was alleged of the Ferguson Police Department in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice last week, “should be foreign to police,” he said.
It’s not clear how prevalent the revenue-driven practices in Ferguson may be in other police departments across the nation, but studies show the 2007-09 recession forced local law enforcement agencies to consider drastic ways to cut budgets and raise revenue without reducing the level of policing. Some communities explored regionalizing police forces or hiring private firms for routine security details, in order to redirect their limited resources. The "broken windows" theory of community policing, or the idea that crackdowns on minor offenses such as panhandling or jaywalking would help reduce the number of more violent crimes, could encourage departments to use enforcement partly in order to raise revenue.
In Ferguson, police had been mandated to write an increasing number of tickets in order to generate enough revenue in fines and court fees to make up for a city financial shortfall, according to the Justice Department’s report. From 2010 to 2014, Ferguson’s strategy revealed the racial targeting: African-Americans, who are about two-thirds of Ferguson’s population, accounted for 85 percent of drivers in police traffic stops, 90 percent of traffic-ticket recipients, and 93 percent of those arrested.
The efforts exceeded city officials’ expectations. In the city’s budget for 2012, officials predicted that revenue from municipal fines and fees would be $1.92 million. But the city exceeded that target, collecting $2.11 million. By 2015, officials were projecting more than $3 million in revenue from the fine and court fees, according to the report.
Following the disclosures about Ferguson’s practices, President Barack Obama said he didn’t think the city's problems were unique. “I think that there are circumstances in which trust between communities and law enforcement have broken down, and individuals or entire departments may not have the training or the accountability to make sure that they’re protecting and serving all people and not just some,” Obama said in a radio interview.
The Justice Department has issued warnings to other police departments about their practices, most recently in Cleveland, where officials found that city police officers had used excessive force disproportionately against minorities. Ferguson’s similar tactics, along with its revenue strategy, happened while local law enforcement agencies across the country felt the impact of the economic downturn.
A 2011 analysis of U.S. police departments conducted by Matthew Parlow, an associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor of law at Marquette University, found that since the beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007, a majority of the nation’s police departments were forced to make cuts and layoffs to their force. In 2010, a study conducted by the Police Executive Forum revealed that, in the police departments responding to the survey, the average cut to police budgets was 7 percent, according to Parlow’s analysis. A majority of those respondents expected additional police budget cuts the following year.
This emphasis on community policing, however, “brought with it an increase in the needs and costs of policing, prosecutions, jails, social services, and other related resources,” Parlow wrote. “When the economy was flourishing, local governments were able to pay for the time- and resource-intensive broken windows approach to community policing.” The analysis concluded that most successful police departments used an evidence-based decision-making approach to allocate policing resources where they were needed most.
'It Doesn't Work That Way'
“You had to make hard choices,” Hamill said, adding that it is more difficult for a department the size of Ferguson's -- about 60 officers -- than for larger cities with hundreds or more than 1,000 officers. “I can tell you from our agency’s perspective, we don’t police to enhance a budget,” he said. “When you’re getting traffic tickets, everybody says, ‘Oh, it must be your quota,’ or ‘You must be in a tight budget.’ It doesn’t work that way and it’s not a proper way to police a community.”
The Justice Department’s report, released last week, has led to the resignations of court officials, the city manager, the police chief and a few officers. Following the announcement of Chief Thomas Jackson’s resignation Wednesday, protesters gathered at the police department. The sizable crowd required a tactical police response from the nearby St. Louis County Police Department and, just after midnight Thursday, two officers were shot. They are expected to survive.
The shooting of the officers was condemned by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the parents of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old black man shot by white Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson last August. [Wilson has since left the department.] Some observers blamed the violence on protesters who shouted anti-police messages in demonstrations that have continued for months since Brown’s death. Hamill said the police department and the community had to work harder to rebuild the relationship and reform practices that endanger the community.
“It only takes one bad incident that can really undermine the entire work of the police department,” Hamill said. “We do talk about that within our agency all the time.”