Fixing Ferguson (and beyond)

I can’t stop looking at Ferguson through the lens of my own experience in local government.

I understand how things work in my beloved Town of Arlington, a 5.2 square mile New England town with a population of about 43,000. Ferguson is more suburban than Arlington, in that it has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles. (Our neighboring town of WInchester, MA also has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles.)

Taking a spin through Ferguson on Google Maps Street View, I see lots of well kept single family homes with more lawn than almost any neighborhood in Arlington. Having done lots of political door knocking in Arlington, I see Ferguson as a flat, pleasant place for a good old fashioned political canvas.

Yes, I am looking at this as a political problem. I know of no other way to view the whole situation. How can a police department think it’s okay to hunt down and shoot unarmed jaywalkers? Who is holding the police department accountable for their actions?

The line of accountability is through the political process. The police chief needs to answer to the mayor and city council, and these elected officials are accountable to the voters.

The crisis we are witnessing began with the murder of Michael Brown, but was fueled by the lack of an appropriate response from the police chief and the elected officials of the City of Ferguson.

A sick police culture
News reports describe the area surrounding Ferguson as a patchwork of small municipalities where African Americans complain of being targeted by the local police. The system is designed to produce this result.

The New York Times reports that the City of Ferguson receives a quarter of its revenue from court fees. This creates an incentive for the mayor and council to expect significant revenue from traffic fines, putting pressure on the police to generate revenue instead of acting in the best interests of the public it is sworn to protect.

Ferguson is not alone in this regard, as the Times reports that some surrounding cities generate half of their revenue from court fees.

Allowing a municipality to keep and budget traffic fines is nothing more than an invitation for trouble. Consider the notorious little city of Hampton, Florida, where they incorporated a 1260 foot stretch of US 301 for the purpose of turning it into a cash cow speed trap.  In Hampton, it was easy for the police to point their speed guns at out-of-towners. They had no remorse for victimizing “those people” in order to generate barrels of cash for a corrupt little city.

In St. Louis County, “those people” who are the targets for the traffic fine revenue scheme are mostly guilty of Driving While Black. White cops, black motorists, and a white political structure that is happy with the cash flow being generated by strict, racially motivated traffic enforcement. The ground rules poison the political culture, poison the community, and leads to a culture where a police officer thinks its acceptable to fire six shots into a jaywalker who happens to be one of “those people.”

In Massachusetts, cities and towns are not allowed to keep revenue from moving violations. Massachusetts cities and towns cannot balance their budgets and raise revenue through strict traffic enforcement. If Missouri is serious about abolishing the toxic culture that produced this crisis, they will act immediately to eliminate traffic fines as a municipal revenue source.

A political failure
My television has been filled with a stream of really good folks, who reside in Ferguson, who are appalled by the actions of the police, the response by the police chief, and the condoning silence of the mayor and city council. Three layers of failed accountability.

St. Louis County reports that the last election (April 2, 2013) in the City of Ferguson attracted 1,614 out of 13,745 registered voters, an 11.74% turnout. I am not writing this to scold the folks who didn’t vote in the city election (most cities and towns don’t do much better). I am merely pointing out how easy it is for the community to exert greater accountability over this whole mess.

Ferguson elects city council members by ward, and in 2013 the winning candidate in Ward 1 got just 518 votes. The winner in Ward 2 got 497 votes. The Ward 3 candidate ran uncontested and won with 162 votes. This is not a sign of a huge political establishment that has a stranglehold on the city. This is a small city where a half dozen folks willing to put their names on the ballot, a few dozen dedicated volunteers, and about 1800 new voters can make all the difference in the world.

Local elections matter. Local elections define the quality of local services, including police and public schools. I am sure the good folks of Ferguson have come to a very real understanding, and they know what to do when the next election rolls around. I guarantee the days of sleepy, low turnout elections in Ferguson are long gone.

Ferguson will get this right.

What about the rest of us?

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