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Lartey writes: "A 2014 federal report found that St Louis area police’s use of traffic stops to raise revenue through fines was an underlying cause of racial unrest. For African Americans pulled over up to 10 times as often as white neighbours it feels little has changed."

Eric Smith, of Hazelwood, Missouri, nearly died after allegedly being assaulted in jail having turned himself in for an outstanding traffic violation. (photo: Sid Hastings/Guardian UK)
Eric Smith, of Hazelwood, Missouri, nearly died after allegedly being assaulted in jail having turned himself in for an outstanding traffic violation. (photo: Sid Hastings/Guardian UK)

'Predatory Police': The High Price of Driving While Black in Missouri

By Jamiles Lartey, Guardian UK

06 July 18

A 2014 federal report found that St Louis area police’s use of traffic stops to raise revenue through fines was an underlying cause of racial unrest. For African Americans pulled over up to 10 times as often as white neighbours it feels little has changed

couple of weeks before the former Missouri governor, Eric Greitens, resigned over a blackmail scandal, he was pulled over by police while driving in the small town of Truesdale.

The governor, who is white, was doing 41mph in a 30mph zone, but the officer let him go with a warning. “It was a friendly interaction, and there was no need for a ticket,” Grietens’s spokesperson told reporters last month.

Diedre Wortham, a lifelong Missouri resident, who is black, has had a very different experience when she has been pulled over.

“There was a time I was speeding, and they wrote me about 11 or 12 tickets,” said Wortham, 47, who has lost track of how many tickets she has been issued in her 25-year driving career. “I was not let go with a warning. I had to go to court. I had to pay the court costs,” she said.

A study published last month by the state attorney general’s office confirmed what many fear about “driving while black” in Missouri. It concluded black motorists were 85% more likely to be pulled over in traffic stops last year. It is the highest disparity since stops data began being collected 18 years ago.

For Missouri motorists like Wortham, traffic stops are a recurring part of daily life. Alongside this is the fear of being issued multiple citations for petty violations, which can lead to a cycle of court appearances and fines that can be financially crippling and lead to jail sentences if not paid.

“Basically, us black people living in St Louis, if we see the police, off the top we’re scared because we think that they are going to pull us over for whatever reason, and we know that they don’t even have to have a reason,” Wortham said.

‘They raise their families off of our tickets’

Ahmed Oliver, 40, has been driving in the St Louis area since he turned 16.

In the early 2000s, Oliver was flush with cash after producing some songs for the St Louis rapper Nelly and bought himself a Range Rover. That car, he said, was a magnet for police attention. Driving back and forth between the county and city, Oliver said he would get pulled over constantly, collecting a string of violations, often many at a time. Oliver said officers would ask him if it was stolen or if he was a drug dealer. Usually they would write a ticket or two for petty violations, like window tints.

On at least seven different occasions, Oliver has been arrested at traffic stops, including once as a teen in the Missouri town of Beverly Hills. Oliver was driving his mother’s car without being registered on her insurance policy, so he was arrested and hauled off to the town holding cell.

“It took me years to get back to zero. It cost a lot of money, I had to get a lawyer,” Oliver said.

“They’re not really trying to keep everybody safe, they’re being predatory,” he said of the police. “They pay their salaries and raise their families off of our tickets.”

Beverly Hills was one of the municipalities implicated in a 2014 Department of Justice study dubbed the “Ferguson report”, detailing the ways that St Louis area police departments were operating as de facto revenue collection agencies for the more than 85 municipalities that dot the county, which borders but does not include the city of St Louis. Court revenue, much of which comes from traffic violations made up more than half of the town’s annual operating budget.

The report concluded that this practice was a major factor in priming Ferguson and other nearby jurisdictions for the unrest that followed the police killing of Michael Brown in August 2014. Reforms and lawsuits have since pushed that revenue collection down by more than 50% in the county, but advocates, who decry the court revenues as a regressive tax on the most vulnerable residents, say that’s a sign of just how bad things were, not how far the county has come.

“The numbers were so high, now that they’re down it’s just reached a level that’s more in line with other places. But it’s still destructive for low-income people,” said Rebecca Gorley, an advocate with the St Louis-based Arch City Defenders (ACD). The legal aid non-profit has sued dozens of county municipalities for what Gorley described as a pattern of “targeted over-policing” of black Missourians.

‘They are traveling and living in Missouri at their own risk’

Bathed in the dingy yellow light and unsettling buzz of old fluorescent lamps, the municipal court in Florissant, Missouri, is housed in a middle school gymnasium, following a decision to move to larger premises in 2014 to help free up logjams in its proceedings.

Sitting behind a folding table perched on a portable riser, a judge consults with residents over violations, mostly minor traffic offenses. A basketball hoop is suspended behind him, and the prosecution is set up to the side, in front of the bleachers.

“There’s still an idea that cities should be using the municipal courts as a grab bag to help their coffers, and black Missourians are disproportionately on the other end of that,” said Nimrod Chapel, president of the Missouri chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Florissant’s 51,000 population is about 70% white, but that is not apparent from the defendants who fill the folding chairs waiting for their chance to speak with the judge, the vast majority of whom are black. According to the AG’s report, black drivers were 10 times more likely to be pulled over in Florissant in 2017 than their white counterparts.

Officials from the Florissant police department attributed the disparity to the fact that many of the surrounding towns are predominantly black, and those residents frequently visit and pass through. “The city of Florissant has a much higher amount of African American motorists traveling within the city limits of Florissant than the Florissant demographics figures would indicate,” the department said.

Last summer, Chapel was one of the primary agitators behind the NAACP’s first ever statewide travel advisory, issued for Missouri. This extraordinary advisory warned black drivers that “they are traveling and living in Missouri at their own risk and subject to unnecessary search, seizure and potential arrest”.

Some called the advisory a stunt. Even within the NAACP the decision was contentious: the local NAACP chapter in St Louis county did not sign on, arguing that it would economically harm the people it was meant to protect by driving business out of the state. Citing the advisory, Fodor’s travel magazine put the state on its 2018 “no list” of destinations to avoid.

But Chapel stands by it. “Really the travel advisory came because we were desperate,” he said. “People at least have to know what danger there is even if we can’t protect them from it.”

‘We don’t even count no more’

Most black drivers in Missouri have stories. “We get pulled over so much, I don’t even know. We don’t even count no more,” said Jerome Morgan, a mental health professional from central Missouri. Morgan said he is constantly being pulled over for flimsy violations, especially if there’s another black person in the car with him. “Oh, that’s a wrap, you’re get pulled over regardless,” he said.

Most recently, Morgan said he was pulled over for not having a front license plate secured to his vehicle. Driving through the more rural parts of Missouri between Jefferson City and Fulton for work, Morgan says he often sees white drivers using Confederate flag decals as their front plates, which is illegal, but never sees those drivers pulled over for it. One day he decided to ask the officer who pulled him over why that was. “He said: ‘Don’t worry about that. I’m talking to you.’”

Jordana Moore, a student who lives in Jefferson City, said she gets pulled over for “no good reason” about once every six weeks.

When tickets are issued, they can be devastating, especially for black residents who make up less than 12% of the population but nearly 20% of those living in poverty in Missouri.

“If you’re in the working middle class these days you can probably stand a ticket for a couple of hundred dollars, and if you get two or three of them you still might be able to make it. It’s probably not going to break you,” Chapel said.

“But if you’re working in lower-wage jobs, not even making $15 an hour, that’s where you start to see the ramifications where people literally can’t get out from under one ticket before they get another.”

‘I was in jail for some traffic tickets, and almost lost my life’

That’s how it went for Eric Smith, 36, who estimates he has been pulled over “hundreds” of times. Like Oliver, for Smith it all started with a flashy car. As a teen he bought a T-top Monte Carlo, and the stops and tickets never stopped coming, nearly costing him his life.

In January 2017, Smith turned himself in to St Charles county on a warrant for unpaid traffic violations and was sentenced to 12 days in jail. Six days into his sentence, after a brief altercation with another inmate, Smith was picked up and thrown down by a corrections officer, his head slamming into a steel seat.

According to a lawsuit filed against the jail by Smith and ACD, aside from stitching the wound and providing him a “watery ice pack”, officials repeatedly refused medical attention Smith for the duration of his stay in jail. For weeks after getting out, Smith said he experienced intense pain and intermittent bouts of dizziness, nausea, double vision and shortness of breath.

Two months passed before Smith could be scheduled for an MRI scan. When doctors finally took a look they discovered that Smith was experiencing subcranial bleeding, and needed a high-risk emergency surgery to drain the buildup. They told Smith that had he gone another two weeks without being diagnosed, he would have died.

“It’s crazy,” Smith said. “I was in jail for some traffic tickets, and almost lost my life.”

Wortham also wound up in jail for unpaid traffic tickets, ones that were more than a decade old at the time she was arrested. In August 2017 she was held for 22 days in the county’s infamous “workhouse” jail facility which she described as riddled with mold, vermin, clogged toilets and stench. “The living conditions are so horrible. I just don’t understand how they are able to keep this building open,” Wortham said.

And when she got out in September, Wortham returned to the same old St Louis county she knew. She say she still gets pulled over two to three times a month, and “never just gets a warning.

“It’s a money thing, they stop people for the least little thing so they can give you a ticket, so you will have to pay,” Wortham said. “But they target the wrong people because we don’t have the money. We are poor.” your social media marketing partner


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+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-07-06 13:14
THis is a true story. It is the same in every state. Where I live, there's always one or more cop cars present for back-up when an African American has been pulled over. This never happens when the speeder is white.

It is ironic that the Guardian is disseminating this story. If it were RT or Sputnik, Clapper, Comey, and the rest of the conspiracy theorists would be howling about Russia trying to "sow discord" in the US by making people suspicious of the police. The Senate just issued a reprts saying this is what RT did in its coverage of American events going back to 2011.

I think most people know about this. It is easily as bad as the treatment of immigrants. But it gets no press. I think the major media in the US are at least as bad and as racist as the cops described above.
0 # Kootenay Coyote 2018-07-06 20:30
Third World Cops, & worse than some in the real Third World.
0 # Donna Roberts 2018-07-07 09:08
I can absolutely sympathize with those POC who are targeted by police, by why are they intentionally breaking the law (illegally tinting windows, no front license plate) when they know that these infractions will be reasons/excuses to be pulled over? I am all for strict enforcement of such laws - for ALL vehicles - and can't understand why anyone, black, white or otherwise, would purposefully break these regulations.

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