Stopping Profit Based Policing
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
I’ve always been somewhat naïve. I have fortunately outgrown some of this tendency as I’ve gotten older, steadily replacing my childish belief in the good intentions of man with a realistic view on human nature. But that’s been slow coming. That childish belief gave way unwillingly over the course of many years and unfortunate experiences. It also made for some especially difficult epiphanies while working in local government.
“Policing for Profit” is the concept of using law enforcement as a revenue generator. It’s the idea that a police department should pay for part of its own expenses by the cash it garners through its operations. The term was thrown around a lot when the world was focused on Ferguson, MO. After becoming involved in an investigation about a police shooting there in 2014, the Department of Justice conducted a wide-ranging investigation into the operations of the City and its police department. Much of the discussion about this investigation revolved around policing for profit, but it’s not anything new. Growing up, I often accompanied my family on the five-hour drive from Tallahassee to my grandparents’ house in the suburbs of Atlanta. The back-country route that my father insisted was faster wound through numerous small towns. There were one or two in particular in which he purposely slowed to a crawl and carefully monitored our velocity. I still recall listening from the backseat as he and my mother discussed the reputations of these alleged speed traps.
The allegations against Ferguson went beyond traffic tickets. Many claimed that the local government was purposely aggressive in a varied range of arrests and criminal charges, generating revenue through far more than simple traffic citations. Much of the anger surrounding these allegations stemmed from the theory that this ill-intentioned enforcement disproportionately affected minority communities there.
As a young chief at a small department in the Midwest, I watched the situation in Missouri with bated breath. It was obviously a great wakeup call for any of us in the law enforcement profession regarding the necessity of building quality relationships with those in our community, but the Policing for Profit part of the issue loomed equally large for me. At the time, I remember framing the issue as something that happened “elsewhere”. It was a problem I’d never face, perpetrated by small pockets of ill-intentioned autocrats in other parts of the country. I have, unfortunately, come to find that I was wrong.
I think part of my naiveite can be excused. The logic for profit-based policing simply isn’t there. Firstly, I never understood the motivation. I became a police officer to help people and catch bad guys. Why would I (or any of my fellow officers) purposely abandon this adventure to try and generate revenue to run a city? The psychology of the matter didn’t make sense.
Secondly, the numbers didn’t add up. When you write a citation, there are more people involved than the officer himself. A municipality has to employ a clerk (or clerks) to process the citations. They have to hire a judge to hear the cases. There are numerous other people involved in the process who all have to be paid. On paper, it’s highly unlikely that a community could ever even cover its costs with revenues they generate from enforcement efforts. It’s even more unlikely that they could make a profit to help fund other city services.
Finally, the priority of the situation didn’t make sense to me. Time is a finite resource. If officers are spending all of their time writing citations for traffic or other minor offenses, who is arresting the drug dealers or chasing the burglars? Would not the city be simply employing a police department for the sake of paying for a police department? “No”, I told myself, “the logic simply didn’t add up.” Surely those who would ascribe to this philosophy would be few and far between.
Besides these practical reasons, it was obvious to me that policing for profit was simply wrong by its very nature. Law enforcement should never be viewed as a source of revenue. That’s what taxes are for. In every state in the Union, local governments are granted some sort of power for taxation. They’re very clearly told what they can do to generate revenue, through taxes, to fund the services they provide to citizens. Law Enforcement is a public good. If there are any services that government can justify levying taxes to fund, it is public safety. While many may quibble over the morality of forcefully taking money from a citizen to fund schools, build roads or facilitate a local soccer league, even the staunchest of libertarians would concede the government has to provide for public safety. Public safety agencies should be the first in line at the government coffers. Why then, would we expect the police to fund themselves?
Policing for Profit just doesn’t make sense, and I told myself that the uproar over the matter must be about places few and far between.
What I told myself was, in essence, “it can’t happen here.”
Unfortunately, it can and it does. I’ve since come to see that the problem is more commonplace than I had previously believed. I’ve also discovered that the actual culprit is not the usual suspect.
During Ferguson, when I first began ruminating on these issues, I was serving as the chief of a rather small town in Kansas, near the Colorado border. Several years later, I moved to a slightly larger department (about 30 officers) north of Wichita. At one point I was asked to a meeting where a finance clerk proposed that my department conduct a warrant roundup based on how much money in fines each individual owed to the City Court. The purpose was very clearly a financial one. Later, I was shocked and appalled when the City Administrator there ordered me to have my officers write more citations, as the revenues from citations were falling short of what the City had estimated them to be in their budget. This was far from the only concern I’d had with the administration there, but it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I hired a lawyer and spent the entire summer of that year trying to inform the city council of the issues. The administration would eventually suspend me (pending termination). Several months later I was reinstated, after multiple resignations at city hall and an uproar from the community. Recognizing the enemies I’d made and knowing I couldn’t lead with a target on my back, I chose to leave on a good note and accepted a new position elsewhere. I was a chief, a role that tends to be somewhat transient anyhow. Still, given the toll it took on my family and the fact that it very nearly destroyed my career, I can’t say for sure that I’d do it again. I do know that it’s very unlikely a line-level officer (without the public platform I had) could be expected to speak up about the practice and survive with his/ her career intact.
I look back on that time with a thankful heart for the lessons I learned, but it was altogether a most unpleasant experience. It was also very instructive about the reasons that policing for profit still happens in our communities across the country. Even if police officers are properly educated on the dangers of policing for profit (as I was), do they really want to lay their job on the line to call out a small-town bureaucracy that insists on it? It’s easier to simply hold their nose and write the tickets, which is the course I’m sure many choose.
More recently, I was surprised to read a newspaper article about a council meeting in a small town near me. The reporter quoted an interaction between the relatively new police chief and a councilman during the meeting. The councilman was essentially telling the chief (in front of the newspaper) that he had to make officers go write more tickets, while the chief tried to explain he wasn’t legally allowed to do so.
The law enforcement profession usually does a good job at responding to hot topic issues in the public eye, and this was no exception. I heard countless lectures at training conferences about the dangers of policing for profit. I have no doubt that training academies across the country also responded in kind, teaching new recruits about the issues with this practice. But what if cops aren’t the only part of the problem? What if they aren’t even the biggest part of the problem?
There is an understandable tendency to go after law enforcement leadership in order to address issues such as these. Advocacy organizations want the cops to receive training about the issues to learn how to address them. Communities want to hear their top cops promise not to do these things. These are all appropriate responses, but what if the law enforcement profession isn’t really the entity responsible for leading communities into the quandary of profit-based policing?
While county sheriffs are directly elected by voters, the most common forms of city government are Council-Manager and Mayor-Council governments. In the former, an elected city council hires a professional city manager. He or she has pretty much absolute authority to hire, fire and give orders all city employees (including those at the police department). In the latter form of government, citizens elect a mayor. He or she usually wields that same type of absolute authority over police officials. The majority of police chiefs don’t have contracts or other protections. Many are subject to being fired for any reason whatsoever by these non-sworn officials.
These elected or appointed officials have sweeping authority over law enforcement operations in their city, but they haven’t received the same precautionary training as their sworn employees. They haven’t seen their peers slammed in the news for the practice. They probably haven’t sat through countless ethics courses or classes that articulated how unacceptable the practice was. They almost certainly haven't had to shoulder the blame for the practice in front of angry community groups demanding answers.
During my experience, I was shocked at the cavalier way that my non-police-officer boss told me to go out and do the exact opposite of what had been hammered into my head over the past several years. It was so very clearly wrong to me. To him, it was just how things had always been done. We were coming from two very different places, and had very different views on the issue.
In most city budgets, there are two components: income and expenditures. During the budget process, all of the city’s revenues for the upcoming year are estimated. This includes enforcement revenues, such as tickets. This is tallied together with other expected revenues, such as sales taxes and property taxes. That total is the amount of money that the city can spend on everything. They then decide how they’re going to spend that money on all of the city’s expenses, such as roads, parks, schools, community events, building projects and, yes, law enforcement. If one of the income line-items (such as police revenues) is less than expected, there is not enough money to pay for all the planned expenditures. This means that the money has to be found somewhere. Instead of going back and cancelling a new playground at the park or the new sidewalk on Main Street, it’s often easier to make sure the police department meets their goal (ahem, quota) for the money they contribute to the city coffers.
I learned, through my experiences, that my high-level view of priorities and morality were trumped at the local level by the individual psychology and expediency of the political process. Yes, policing for profit does happen.
There’s nothing wrong with ensuring that actual law enforcement officers are trained about the dangers and nuances of policing for profit. It’s a good thing, and it needs to continue. Officers need to be able to recognize the slippery slope of this malfeasance before they begin sliding down it. But that’s not enough. The reality is that law enforcement officers aren’t necessarily the weak link in this chain of involved parties. The money from ticket revenues usually goes into a city’s general fund, not anything earmarked for the police department. Cops have never been the one’s with incentive to fill the city coffers with a focus on citations. If an agency is policing for profit, it’s usually because the practice has been set as a matter of policy from the top. Any true solution must address the civilian overlords at City Hall who insist on these practices from the safety and security of a back room out of the public view.
New arrangements (including mandatory contracts for law enforcement leaders) would ensure that chiefs and other law enforcement leaders could say “no” to unethical and illegal orders without fear of reprisal. POST rules around the country require that law enforcement heads be sworn, trained officers. This requirement is useless if a non-sworn official can take police action by proxy. This would help address policing for profit, as well as other questionable issues. Such pseudo-independence could also be achieved by state level laws mandating that such employees could only be fired “for cause”. Many reform efforts now are calling for more oversight of law enforcement agencies. If cities choose to take that course, they need to ensure that oversight is in the form of multi-person boards that operate in open public meetings, not individual bureaucrats who can give orders in hidden back rooms.
Some states have already passed specific laws prohibiting policing for profit. This is a great move that all should follow. Policing for profit has already been determined to be prohibited by Federal case law, but that’s of little use to officers who find themselves being ordered to commit such actions. For a higher level of government (the courts) to weigh in under such case law, an outside, aggrieved party would have to file suit. If an officer simply refuses to police for profit, he or she can be fired by their non-sworn boss at city hall, especially in places where employees are “at-will”. The potential for a case law violation provides little protection. State level laws should not only criminalize intentional policing for profit, but provide specific whistle-blower protections for those that speak up about it as well.
All too often, society’s response to a problem is to demand reforms within the police profession itself. Many times, this is appropriate, but such an approach also falls short of real solutions at times. As the most visible, uniformed component of most governments, the police are often a convenient scapegoat. While they may indeed play a role in many problems, they don’t operate in a vacuum. Any real solutions to perceived problems (like policing for profit) need to address the less visible components of government that actually set police policy. Blaming the boys in blue may be a comfortable response, but any real change requires addressing the system they work in and the other parts of government that affect the way they police.