Cops and one small woman holding a BLM sign

Have Columbus city officials ever demanded the Columbus Division of Police to aggressively enforce the law so to generate revenue for the city?

No evidence has yet to surface, but if you consider what the Department of Justice (DOJ) discovered in 2014 while investigating the Ferguson, Missouri police department, you would have to be clueless to think this has never been the case in Columbus.

The single reason why some of our neighborhoods are over-policed is so to ensure public safety, as many of our city leaders adamantly insist.

But after the death of Ferguson resident 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hand of white officers in 2014, the DOJ uncovered smoking-gun proof that over-policing is not entirely about protection. It’s also a tactic Ferguson city officials demanded from their police force so to generate revenue.

After the 2008 financial crisis, cities like Ferguson, needed ways to generate more revenue. So in March 2010, Ferguson’s City Finance Director wrote an email to its chief of police:

“Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year…Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

Then in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote this to the City Manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

Ferguson’s 2010 budget was $11.07 million, with court fees and tickets making up $1.28 million. For 2015 the amount from court fees and tickets increased to $3.09 million.

Some refer to this as “municipal fine farming”, a term coined by progressive author Jacki Wang in her book Carceral Capitalism.

What could go wrong when aggressive police make questionable and unconstitutional arrests? Or issue ticky-tack tickets because their city bosses demanded it? Such as not wearing a seat belt while in a parked car, for instance. Or charging individuals with Making a False Declaration after they provided the short form of their name (“Mike” instead of “Michael”). Both of which happened regularly in Ferguson.

All of this equates into more citizens paying court fines, but also increased situations where police have deadly encounters with innocent citizens.

The DOJ stated in its report, “Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership. The evidence we reviewed supports this perception.”

The DOJ continued, “This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”

Certainly, municipal fine farming isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. People of color have echoing this sentiment for decades.

From 2012 to 2014, African Americans in Ferguson accounted “for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population.”

Surprise, surprise, the DOJ found “substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson…we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Again, no surprise here: “Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans.”

The Columbus police budget is $360 million or 37 percent of the city’s operating budget. The city last year brought in $19 million in revenue from police administered fees and fines.

And 78% of Columbus’ municipal revenue comes from income taxes, and since Franklin County’s unemployment skyrocketed from 25,900 (3.7%) in February to 93,600 (13.9%) in April, the city will be forced to look for new solutions to raise revenue.

Unfortunately, as city and state revenues have drastically fallen, essential community programs have taken hits while police continue to obtain more funds.

Columbus City Council just approved over $1 million in city funds to ‘up-fit’ police vehicles, while Gov. DeWine budget solution to the pandemic fallout was to cut education, taking $9.1 million away from Columbus City Schools for the upcoming school year.

Columbus (and Ohio) has a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba, but Columbus spends 3.5 times as much on police uniforms than it does on infant mortality efforts.

In Columbus, it’s clear that securing revenue for Columbus police and private companies in the form of tax abatements is more important than funding schools or social welfare.

If the current protests calling for a defunding of Columbus police continue to fall on the deaf ears, Columbus risks falling into an accelerated version of the current budget, mirroring what happened in Ferguson – an increased dependency on municipal fees and policing that sees its poorest residents as an ATM while funding the police and private development.