The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri exposed a long history of simmering racial tensions between a largely black community and a primarily white police force.
There are some towns in St. Louis County that have issued more traffic citations than there are residents.
Protesters say Brown's death is a horrific consequence of that tension. But black residents here, and elsewhere in St. Louis County, say they've long been subjected to harassment from law enforcement that's more low grade in nature. One of the key institutional mechanisms used to do that has been traffic enforcement.
Police spend an inordinate amount of time rooting out petty motoring offenses rather than protecting these communities, according to a meticulous new report in The Washington Post.
In Florissant, a St. Louis County town near Ferguson of roughly 52,000 people, for example, black people make up 27 percent of the population, but represent 71 percent of drivers pulled over by police officers. Last year, the town issued 29,072 traffic citations, according to statistics from the Missouri attorney general's office.
Compare that to, say, Lee's Summit, a suburb of Kansas City that has a population of 92,000. Despite it being a much larger city, The Post reports, the police force in Lee's Summit issued only 9,651 tickets and collected half as much revenue from traffic enforcement.
In some cases, The Post reports, there are some towns in St. Louis County that have issued more traffic citations than there are residents. Other municipalities here have issued more arrest warrants over traffic offenses than there are residents.
These warrants often begin a spiral for poor residents who cannot afford fines, which then beget late fees and additional financial penalties, which land them in jail, which causes them to miss work and so on. Outstanding warrants impede social organizations from placing people in housing or job-training programs.
"These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do – speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time." – Thomas Harvey
"These aren't violent criminals," Thomas Harvey, a lawyer with the Arch City Defenders, tells The Post. "These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do – speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don't have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don't allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can't pay the fines, you get fined for that too. And when you can't get to court, you get an arrest warrant."
The Post report details how St. Louis County municipalities criminalizes poverty via traffic enforcement in great detail.
Occasionally, these traffic-enforcement cases turn violent. The Post didn't examine it in this particular story, but consider the plight of motorist Henry Davis, who wound up in Ferguson merely because he missed an exit during a heavy rainstorm, then pulled to the side of the highway because he couldn't see.
Police in Ferguson ran his license plate and discovered an outstanding warrant – for a different Henry Davis. By the time that mistake was discovered, Davis had already been hauled off to jail, where he tells The Daily Beast four officers beat him while he was handcuffed.
They later charged him with destruction of property – for bleeding on their uniforms.