Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new report shows Ferguson is an outlier among U.S. cities with its predatory court fees—but the racial disparities between its police force and the public are not so different.
The shooting death of Walter Scott at the hands of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager echoes the many incidents of lethal force used against unarmed black men that have led to nationwide protests in the last year. Something else about the tragic episode in South Carolina also resonates: Slager shot Scott after stopping him for a minor traffic arrest.
The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson following the police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown uncovered a predatory model for the city's finances. The Ferguson Police Department and municipal court system put revenue before public safety, paying for government services by piling unjust court fees on the city's poor and black residents.
Slate's Jamelle Bouie says (via Twitter) that "it's no accident that that Walter Scott was stopped for a minor traffic infraction." Bouie hasn't posted anything elaborating the point just yet, and it might not have anything to do with the Justice investigation in Ferguson. Still, his teaser raises a question (maybe inadvertently): Does North Charleston operate on a predatory court-fee system, as Ferguson and many other municipalities in St. Louis County do? Do many other cities resemble Ferguson in that way?
Researchers at the Urban Institute have been wrestling with this question, and they just posted their finding comparing Ferguson's finances with other U.S. cities. According to the post, Ferguson is an outlier on several points when compared with either comparable cities in the U.S. or other cities in Missouri.
The Urban Institute reports that Ferguson derived 12.9 percent of its revenue for fiscal year 2012 from fines and forfeitures. This figure outstrips the share for all other Missouri cities (2.5 percent) or mid-sized cities throughout the nation (1.8 percent). Ferguson's over-reliance on fees drew the condemnation of the Justice Department, but as the report notes, Ferguson, while an outlier, isn't alone in Missouri. (Or even in troubled St. Louis County.)
North Charleston does not resemble Ferguson with regard to its fees and financing, which is worth bearing in mind with regard to the alleged murder of Walter Scott. The Urban Institute sent along breakout data for Ferguson and North Charleston, and the differences between the cities are readily apparent.
Although it comes as small comfort, North Charleston has not relied on court fees (or intergovernmental transfers and assistance) the way that Ferguson has. The differences between North Charleston and Ferguson show that there may not be a single structural solution to the problem of official abuse against black citizens witnessed in both cities.
Questions about other troubling similarities between the cities are already being raised, however. In Ferguson, for the first time since the city's founding, black representatives make up half the City Council. During Wednesday's abbreviated press conference from North Charleston, a reporter asked why the police force is 80 percent white when the city's population is 47 percent black.
People asking how this could possibly happen deserve answers.