As Police Departments Collect More Fines, They Solve Fewer Crimes

Flickr: Charleston's TheDigitel

Flickr: Charleston's TheDigitel

One of the common complaints from civil rights advocates is how police exacerbate the existing racial bias by disproportionately writing tickets to members of low-income communities of color. The problem was well documented in the Ferguson report, which is from a 2015 follow-up investigation of police bias in Ferguson, Missouri. The report determined the city overwhelmingly relied on fees and fines collected from people in ways that “both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias.”

The Washington Post reported that local police departments are being used to provide revenue for municipalities by imposing and collecting fees, fines, and asset forfeitures. The result is that police departments collecting more money for their municipalities do a much poorer job of solving crimes.

This leads to the question, should police officers be used for revenue collection or to prevent and solve crimes for the people they are supposed to serve and protect?

Police departments spending too much time collecting revenue and not enough time preventing and solving crimes are the reason many people believe the police are never there when you need them and always there when you don’t.

Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Sances, Hye Young You used detailed municipal finance data for 2007 and 2012 from the two most recent survey years of the Census of Governments, a Census Bureau survey that collects detailed income and spending data from municipalities. That information was combined with crime clearance data for those same years from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which collects crime and policing data from law enforcement agencies.

The group was then able to examine the correlation between high revenue generating departments and their success at solving crimes.

They examined finance and crime data for almost 6,000 cities for each of the 2 years studied and found a strong link between the 2 aspects of policing. The group stated:

Police departments in cities that collect a greater share of their revenue from fees, fines and civilly forfeited assets have significantly lower rates of solving violent and property crimes.

The assumption is that when police departments are bringing in lots of revenue, they do not have the time and resources for investigative work. The correlation was exceptionally strong in smaller cities, where investigative duties fall on the patrol officers rather than special investigators. Those communities tend to be simultaneously overpoliced, because of excessive traffic stops and fines, and underpoliced, because the lack of crime solving.

The group gave an example of what the information showed:

Let’s imagine a city of 50,000 people — call it Middletown — where the per capita income, racial demographics, crime rate and similar variables are the same as the state averages. Nationally, on average, municipalities bring in 2 percent of their revenue from fees and fines. If Middletown’s police department collected only about 1 percent of its revenue from fees and fines, our model predicts it would solve 53 percent of its violent crimes and 32 percent of its property crimes. But if Middletown’s police department instead collected 3 percent of its revenue from fees and fines, our model predicts that clearance rates would fall to 41 percent for violent crimes and 16 percent for property crimes. That’s a stark drop of 12 and 16 percentage points, respectively.

Communities tend to trust police less when they are being used to collect too much revenue. The citizens feel exploited by police rather than seeing officers as people who keep the community safe. The peoples’ trust in police is further lowered when police are not solving serious crimes because they are out writing tickets to someone who was driving 47 mph in a 45 mph zone, or someone who jaywalked. This naturally leads to mistrust of police and refusal to cooperate with them. Because people see police as representatives of the government, it also causes people to mistrust the government in general.

Perhaps it’s time for communities to rethink the priorities of their police departments.