Just raise our taxes. That’s the takeaway I arrive at more and more as I read about the various fuckeries of our nations police forces. Increasingly law enforcement is being used as a de facto fund raising mechanism for our nations various levels of government. It’s part of the reason why the war on drugs, one of the few policies reviled by libertarians, many conservatives, and liberals alike, still continues. Have you ever heard of asset forfeiture? If the police can provide anything resembling proof that your property was involved in a drug offense they can straight up seize it and sell it. The burden of proof is on you, the theoretically still innocent person, to prove that your stuff wasn’t related to drugs.
This isn’t a rarely used rule either, and it isn’t applied once someone is proven guilty of selling crack to a toddler. Some estimate that asset forfeiture is approaching two billion dollars annually. Again, that is nearly two billion dollars seized by the government from people who do not even have to be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Asset forfeiture records are broken by states on an incredibly consistent business. It’s a new way for cash strapped governments to raise money quickly, and if you oppose it, well suddenly you’ve become soft on crime. No one wants to be labeled soft on crime. In some states there isn’t even a warrant required, a state official just needs to be able to prove “probable cause” to take your property. Plus, if you involve a DEA agent in a drug bust the case has gone federal, where the standards are even lower than at the state levels, and the local police department still keeps the majority of the profit.
It’s no coincidence that now, in an environment in which it is politically toxic to even suggest raising taxes, especially on the proportionally undertaxed wealthy, governments are turning towards backdoor ways of raising money, and at the moment the war on drugs and incessant minor ticketing are excellent means of doing such. The state, or at least aspects of the state, are in no way doing this to promote safety. Cutting the length of yellow lights has been shown to increase accident risk dramatically and red light cameras have not yet been proven to stop accidents, but you know what happens when you combine the two? You get a bunch more tickets, just at the expense of risking peoples lives in the name of trying to protect them. You can always just allocate your police force to good old fashioned speed traps too. One town in Florida was caught using tickets to supply over a third of its annual revenue. It’s also why some tickets have literally hundreds of dollars of fees attached to them by the courts, the towns, the state, and that means pretty much anyone involved can have a hand in the cookie jar. Every single one of these institutions have felt the strain of budget cuts and have turned towards fees that the wealthy can easily pay as a result. And since the wealthy, those who hold the real political power in this nation, can pay it easily nothing will really change. Especially as those revenue streams become more and more crucial for the job security of the people theoretically in charge of enforcing our laws objectively.
To say nothing of the fact that such ticketing (made famous by NYC Police Commissioner Bratton’s “broken windows” theory since the 90’s) disproportionately targets the young, the poor, and minorities, all groups that haven’t had a lot of political power. Every young, poor, black man is firmly in the crosshairs. Traditionally disadvantaged groups are being targeted by the state, deliberately so, in an effort to raise funds without having to tax the wealthy elite. This sort of thing provided plenty of the rage that wound up creating the riots in Ferguson. Not every single person will experience police brutality, but in some (poor, black) cities there are more warrants (usually for unpaid bills of some sort) than there are residents. The rich can afford to pay off these tickets and just move on, especially because our ticketing system doesn’t adjust the amount you pay to your income like some nations do. It’s hard to ask hundreds of dollars of someone at or below the poverty line, and if you don’t pay the government is one hell of a debt collector. You can get a warrant for your arrest placed, barring you from many jobs or programs that would help lift you from poverty.
Debtors prisons are alive and well as long as the debt is to the government. Even if that doesn’t happen licenses can and will be pulled. In a nation with an underdeveloped public transit system many people have to drive. Have to. America is a nation built around the automobile. So this forces people to drive without licenses, an offense that can easily put you in prison, further damaging your ability to earn a living.
Add to this that the prisons and jails need bodies, that is a multi billion dollar industry, increasingly sold to private companies, and one can immediately see yet another conflict of interest. On a fun side note, those prisons are often overcrowded, violent and definitely ineffective at reducing recidivism. Plus at least some use prisoners to perform menial labor for way, way below minimum wage. This is all legal, and there are millions in our prison system right now. The USA is the leading jailer in the world on a per capita basis. We can claim that the system isn’t rigged as much as we would like, but a large portion of law enforcement requires aggressive ticketing, pursuit of drug offense, and jailing of the nations disadvantaged on an institutional level.
The weapons that the police had were also around for economical reasons as much as any. Sure, police chiefs can believe that the war on drugs and the war on terror (both “wars” that removed the borders and turned everyone, everywhere, into a potential combatant) necessitate a tank, but someone has to sell them that tank. Think that maybe a defense department, already infamous for high spending relative to literally the entire rest of the world combined, may look to cut costs after an ambiguous and only mildly successful war? Exactly. The local taxpayer’s contributions were siphoned from them by the federal government in return for the very weapons turned against them (weapons their taxes helped pay for in the first place, I might add) when they rioted as a response to police brutality and a system fundamentally based on exploiting and criminalizing them in order to keep the system running.
Police brutality, the breaching of our right to protest, and police militarization are all frightening issues completely worthy of every bit of outrage and coverage they get, but they are the tip of the iceberg. This is not the result of one isolated incident, nor can it be fixed with simple solutions. Massive parts of the system are rotten and fundamentally broken. It goes so much deeper than Ferguson.