Academic journal article Faulkner Law Review

Policing for Profit: How Urban Municipalities' Focus on Revenue Has Undermined Law Enforcement Legitimacy

Academic journal article Faulkner Law Review

Policing for Profit: How Urban Municipalities' Focus on Revenue Has Undermined Law Enforcement Legitimacy

Article excerpt


Today's modern police force has deep roots in the Anglo-American tradition, dating back to the sheriffs of the English shires. (1) The duties and functions of modern law enforcement, however, differ greatly from their medieval counterparts. (2) The evolution of law enforcement functions can be directly traced to the rise of the progressive administrative state and the proliferation of literally countless laws, regulations, and ordinances at the federal, state, and local levels. (3) No longer merely keepers of the peace, (4) today's police officers are tasked with innumerable duties (5)--some, contradictory with each other. (6) Nowhere can these contradictions be more acutely felt than on the street, where officers first interact with the members of the community they have ostensibly sworn to protect and serve. (7)

To many people, police officers are the face of the municipal administrative state. (8) They are representatives of the mostly-unseen bureaucracy that orders and directs their lives. While citizens sporadically interact with other municipal entities (annually with the DMV, for example), they see the police patrolling their communities on an almost daily basis. (9) More importantly, those officers wield the power to stop them on the barest suspicion of wrongdoing, (10) temporarily detain them, search them, seize their property, (11) and even arrest them for trivial offenses. (12) It is crucial to the functioning of an ordered society that the citizenry perceives the application of that police power as legitimate. (13) If, however, community perception is the police power is being used for illegitimate purposes, faith and trust in officers that exercise that power would be undermined and their ability to perform their legitimate functions would be stymied. (14)

Across America, many municipalities have discovered that law enforcement can be a lucrative business. (15) Some derive a significant percentage of their operating budgets from tickets, citations, fines, and court fees. (16) Some municipalities have even tied their law enforcement agency budgets to the revenue generated from such sources. (17) In addition to ticket revenue, police departments profit from civil asset forfeiture, a process whereby police are able to seize cash and property without proving a crime has actually occurred. (18) The process is so lucrative, a substantial number of police agencies are dependent on revenues from it. (19)

These practices have the effect of creating a perverse incentive among such agencies to write more citations and make more stops in order to boost their budgets. (20) The natural consequence of this practice is to alter the community perception of the police officer from a keeper of the peace to an oppressor of liberties. (21) Hence, municipal and law enforcement focus on revenue generation ultimately delegitimizes the authority of the police in the eyes of the community and destroys their ability to effectively perform their essential duties. (22)

Revenue collection is fundamentally incompatible with traditional law enforcement functions. It distorts the focus and priorities of officers away from community safety. (23) It interferes with the ability of police officers to ensure the safety and security of the communities they serve. (24) Further, such practices raise serious constitutional issues. (25) Such practices have led to violent confrontations between law enforcement and the public. As part of the larger national dialog on community policing, policy-makers must give attention to how police forces are funded and how an emphasis on revenue collection interferes with police effectiveness. Money, as they say, is at the root of this evil (26) and only by either prohibiting or seriously curtailing the practice of using fines, court fees, and asset forfeitures to fund municipal governments and police departments will reforms--which are fundamental to restoring police legitimacy in the communities they serve--take root. …

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