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St. Louis County Is Profiting Off the ‘Muni Shuffle’ Long After Ferguson Protests

A new proposal to abolish small police forces seeks to end the cycle of debt and incarceration.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

St. Louis County Is Profiting Off the ‘Muni Shuffle’ Long After Ferguson Protests

A new proposal to abolish small police forces seeks to end the cycle of debt and incarceration.

In St. Louis County, the “muni shuffle” isn’t a dance. It’s a term advocates use to describe the long and expensive journey required  to pay fines and fees levied by dozens of municipal police departments. In a lawsuit filed last month against Edmundson, one of St. Louis’s 88 municipalities, the legal aid group ArchCity Defenders alleged that the city and its neighbors have created a calculated and torturous cycle: By over-policing low-income communities of color, law enforcement is able to issue excessive citations for minor traffic and municipal code violations, which are then followed by added charges and interest rates that poor residents cannot afford to pay.

As those debts pile up, arrest warrants are autogenerated by the municipal court system. And so a person who failed to pay a fine for a broken taillight often ends up in jail because he or she could not pay the initial charge.

The lawsuit against Edmundson is one of a series of complaints that ArchCity Defenders is filing against cities accused of jailing people because they can’t pay fines and fees. Though Edmundson is a town of just 832 people, it generated $2.2 million in revenue from its municipal court between 2012 and 2016.

Despite intense national scrutiny after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, a federal investigation, and a wave of reform-focused legislation, advocates say cities in St. Louis County are still using municipal courts and police departments to fill their coffers while saddling their poorest residents with crushing debt.

While the lawsuits wind their way through the courts, a new bill introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives aims to short-circuit that cycle. House Bill 81 would consolidate police forces in cities with an area of less than two square miles or with a population of 5,000 or fewer inhabitants. Representative Justin Hill, the bill’s sponsor, said such a move would increase professionalism, take bad actors out of the system, and prevent people from getting caught in a tangled web of debt that stretches across different municipalities.

The county’s approximately 60 police departments serve as the entry point into the cycle of warrants and debt. Many of these forces police towns of just a few hundred people, with tax bases that struggle to sustain full-fledged law enforcement departments. A 2015 report by Better Together, a St. Louis merger research group, noted that nearly a third of St. Louis County’s police departments are in municipalities that occupy less than one square mile; a geographical feature created, as the Washington Post put it, “by a half century of abhorrent formal and informal policies, including segregation, restrictive covenants, redlining and racially coded zoning.”

In 2013, police departments employed an average of 2.1 full-time officers per 1,000 residents. Edmundson, whose population hovers around 800, has 11 police officers. In Hill’s view, the smaller the police force, the more likely it is to succumb to abuses of power, in part because the citations officers give out have a direct correlation to their city’s revenue stream and their own paychecks.

‘They haven’t stopped playing the game’

Hill’s proposal is the most recent effort to stop the muni shuffle. In response to the predatory practices exposed in Ferguson after Brown’s death, the Missouri State Senate tried to curb some of the practices by passing legislation, including limiting fines and banning “failure to appear” charges.  

Advocates have also used grassroots activism and litigation to try to curb some of the worst abuses; municipal court revenues have declined in the face of all these measures. But Marius Johnson-Malone, deputy director of community-based studies at the St. Louis research group Better Together, believes that the predatory system remains largely intact. Furthermore, he said, “there have been pretty diligent efforts every legislative session since to repeal part of that bill or all of it from folks in other parts of the state.” In particular, legislators have attempted to roll back restrictions on how much municipalities can rely on court revenue, and reinstate driver’s license suspensions and incarceration for the nonpayment of fines.

Poorer cities, usually because they have more low-income residents and therefore a less robust tax base, are more likely to try to increase revenue through traffic fines. A 2006 study from the research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that a one percentage point decrease in city revenue yielded a 0.38 percentage point increase in traffic tickets.

Because each municipality relies on the earnings of its court system, “that kind of incentive is what creates the worst abuses we’ve seen,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. Court clerks and members of the judiciary often have their salaries at least partially funded by the very court debt that they are overseeing. In 2014, Edmundson’s mayor sent out a memo in which he told the city’s police officers, “I wish to take this opportunity to remind you that the tickets that you write do add to the revenue on which the P. D. budget is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time.”

Meredith Walker is a plaintiff in a pending class-action lawsuit against Florissant, the most-populous city in St. Louis County, similar to the one recently filed against Edmundson. Walker was jailed more than 10 times over the span of five years because of fine-related warrants, paid the county over $15,000 in fees, court costs, and bond forfeitures, and at one point had her license suspended due to her inability to pay her fines. She said the situation persists despite reform efforts. Municipalities “have become better at playing the game—they haven’t stopped playing the game,” she said. “My friends and other people are still having problems in court, still on payment programs they can’t afford, running from municipalities because they cant afford to pay.”

‘There are so many landmines’

In an email, Johnson-Malone compared St. Louis’s municipal breakdown to that of other counties. “Cook County, Illinois (home of Chicago) is often cited for having an abundance of municipalities,” he wrote. “It has about 130 municipalities but also has a population of 5.2 million people [the population of St. Louis County is roughly 1 million]. Jefferson County, KY, where Louisville is, has 99 municipalities but the vast majority of those do not have police departments or municipal courts.” And Jackson County—Missouri’s second-most populous county after St. Louis—contains only 18 municipalities, despite being 100 square miles larger than St. Louis County.

Walker recalled one two-mile stretch of road comprising several municipalities, “each one of them hungry for revenue,” she said, where it was possible to get multiple citations for the same offense four or six times over. “Once they put you in a cycle of going to court, paying for frivolous tickets, you get these inflated charges that [make you choose] do I pay this ticket or pay to keep my lights on,” said Walker. “That $100 ticket you ended up running from becomes a $700 ticket by the time you try to pay everything. There are so many landmines that can blow your leg off just trying to make an honest living in St. Louis.”

In Edmundson and its neighboring cities, municipal courts are not sentencing poor residents directly to their jails. But by automatically issuing warrants whenever someone fails to pay a fine or fee, the result is often the same.

In the Edmundson lawsuit, one of the plaintiffs, Quinton Thomas, was jailed multiple times over a four-year period for minor driving-related offenses like improper vehicle registration. The muni shuffle, which ultimately led him to lose two jobs and his car, wound through five municipal police departments in which Thomas had an outstanding ticket or warrant. He explained to the court each time that he had no way to pay the fines he was handed, but each failure to pay simply resulted in a new warrant.

‘Uneven delivery of police services’

“It wasn’t Ferguson that created the Ferguson problem—it was all the small municipalities around it,” said Hill. He served as a police officer for 13 years before becoming a lawmaker, and stressed that during his time on the force he became intimately familiar with the effect small police departments have on the culture of law enforcement and community relations. They are also less efficient at policing, the Better Together report noted. “The fragmentation of policing among 60 separate police agencies, many of which are extremely small, causes inefficiencies and uneven delivery of police services to area residents,” it said.

In a 2015 paper, the Police Executive Research Forum described a system in which police officers in St. Louis County do a muni shuffle of their own, hiring officers who were let go from other departments for disciplinary or performance issues “because it can be less expensive to hire an experienced (albeit compromised) officer than to recruit and train a new officer.”

“These chiefs don’t want to see a guy lose his or her job, so they say ‘Hey you can quit or you’re going to be fired.’” Hill said. “So [the officers] always resign and take a job at a smaller agency [where] the pay is no good. It changes the way they police.”

Hill noted that his bill could end up being redundant: There is currently an initiative, spearheaded by Better Together, to put a proposal on the 2020 ballot that would merge the city and county of St. Louis, thereby consolidating city and county police departments and eliminating municipal police forces. But he still thinks that his legislation is important, if only to generate conversation on the issue.

“If the bill does go through, I think you’re going to see a county police department which is much more professional,” said Hill. “They [will] have the resources, proper training for good policemen to provide services to residents of St. Louis County.”

Not everyone agrees with Hill’s idea. The St. Louis County Police Department declined to comment on the bill, and the Edmundson police force did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But police chiefs in the area have come out against the bill, saying that they have already taken measures to address issues within their departments. “It’s just a slap in the face to the hardworking police officers doing their job every day on a professional level,” Normandy Police Chief Frank Mininni told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Strode of ArchCity Defenders believes that consolidating municipal courts would be more useful than consolidating police departments, as the courts are the ones who ultimately control the fine and fee system. “You can actually have a professionalized court operating legally and constitutionally, and that is far more feasible to accomplish when there’s one court operating in the region,” he said.

But Walker, the Florissant plaintiff, feels that consolidating police forces could be a start in the right direction. As things stand, she said, police departments feel untouchable. “We should make a smaller set of people responsible for governing, making sure everyone is on same page and following the same set of standards,” Walker said.

Ultimately, she added, “Police officers are civil servants. When are they going to be responsible for service and protecting? They aren’t accountants here to collect money.”