Last week, U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver introduced a bill with the power to dramatically change law enforcement nationwide.
The Missouri Congressmen’s Fair Justice Act would ban criminal and traffic law enforcement activities motivated by revenue raising purposes as was revealed was happening in Ferguson after a United States Department of Justice investigation.
“The time has come to end the practice of using law enforcement as a cash register, a practice that has impacted too many Americans and has disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities,” said Congressman Cleaver. “No American should have to face arbitrary police enforcement, the sole purpose of which is to raise revenue for a town, city, or state.”
Cleaver’s law would make it a federal civil rights violation, punishable by up to five years in prison, to enforce criminal or traffic laws solely to raise revenue. While the determination of what constitutes criminal or traffic enforcement “solely to raise revenue,” is arguable, this law would give real teeth to lamp lighters like Craig Matthews, an NYPD veteran of 17 years who filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York in 2012 after suffering retaliation from his supervisors for reporting to NYPD bosses about a quota system implemented in his precinct.
Any official of a state, county, city, or town could face serious jail time for adopting a policy or engaging in any activity that “authorizes, promotes, or executes the enforcement of criminal, civil, or traffic laws for the purpose of raising revenue,” under the proposed law.
According to Cleaver’s press release:
“This legislation will help prevent the kind of reprehensible activities that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, where the Department of Justice found that Ferguson’s law enforcement practices were shaped by the city’s overwhelming focus on raising revenue rather than protecting the public.
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the results of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson police department. The report provided a searing account of unconstitutional police practices motivated by the purpose of generating revenue. The DOJ reported that police work disproportionately targeted minorities in generating revenue from fines and fees, rather than protecting the community.
President Barack Obama recently stated, in light of the report, that, “[w]hat we saw was that the Ferguson Police Department, in conjunction with the municipality, saw traffic stops, arrests, tickets as a revenue generator, as opposed to serving the community, and that it systematically was biased against African-Americans in that city who were stopped, harassed, mistreated, abused, called names, fined.”
Additionally, The U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department offers examples of other unfortunate incidents in recent years outside of Ferguson and across the United States:
In Jennings, Missouri a new lawsuit alleges that the court system has almost exclusively black defendants, who are routinely sent to jail for failing to pay minor traffic fines.
In Alabama, which has made heavy budget cuts to court funding, several lawsuits contend that local courts perpetuate a cycle of steep fines for minor offenses, and jail those who cannot pay.
In California, residents in the predominantly Latino community of southeast L.A. County have complained for years that they are unfairly targeted by city officials for profit. Citizens allege that the city extracted tens of thousands of dollars from plumbers, carpet cleaners, even people scavenging for bottles and cans, by seizing vehicles for alleged code violations, and then pressuring the owners to pay arbitrary fines. Additionally, it was reported that local law enforcement officers targeted immigrants in the U.S. without proper papers by using towing schemes. Police would pull over drivers simply to impound their cars, forcing the drivers to pay large impound fees.
With the pressure of public attention, a White House “Task Force” investigating law enforcement issues sent a report on Monday calling for independent investigations into all police shootings, essentially endorsing one of the measures Frank Serpico has been advocating for years.
While the public support of a White House task force and legislation introduced by a U.S. Representative is a step in the right direction, PINAC readers should know by now that the people are the driving force for changing legislation. Neither the White House report nor Congressman Cleaver’s bill have any actual force of law. To enact new laws and policies, you need to elect city councilmen, mayors, governors, U.S. Congressmen, and a President that actually care about change, and don’t simply talk about issues because of which way the wind blows.