Dear City of Ferguson and Other Small Towns,

I’ve been watching the news and reading about the Justice Department’s findings on the Ferguson Police Department. While there’s so, so much bad in there, one of the things I’m thinking a lot about is this:

More than $3 million of the city’s budget this year is expected to come directly from excessive, unfair fines and fees levied on its residents, mostly on its African-American residents, mostly on its lower-income residents.

I have some friends who are cops. They’re good people. And they talk about how they’re told to give out tickets, how their cities need revenue. It’s a really, really common thing in small towns across the country.

There’s a really funny story about how one of these cops, a really great guy, a really nice guy, tried to fight back. He was told by this asshole sergeant to go write tickets, boost the city’s revenue.

So he went to the good side of town and handed out speeding tickets. Someone rich and powerful called the police chief to complain about getting a ticket. He was called back to the station, written up for insubordination. Insubordination because he knew better than to write tickets on that side of town. Then he’s told to go write parking tickets. So he went back to that side of town, and wrote parking tickets until someone else rich and powerful called to complain. And he was called back to the station, and written up a second time for insubordination. And he, a veteran police officer for more than 10 years and the sniper on their county’s SWAT team, was punished by having to back to rookie training for a few days. Just to make a point. 

I thought this was a great story about this nice guy cop sticking it to his horrible sergeant and refusing to just give out tickets to the poor and minorities to meet a quota to beef up the city’s funds. I hadn’t really thought it all they way through.

That city — and lots of small cities like his — relies on money from tickets and fees to fill out its budget. So cops are sent out to write tickets.

They’re sent out looking for problems.

If you walk out your door looking for a problem, you’re going to find one every single time.

They should be sent out looking for ways to interact with the community, to see where they can be involved, where they can help. All the people I know who are cops, this is why they became cops, and this is what they like about being cops. They tell stories about how they got out of their patrol cars and talked to people, helped them out, learned their names, fixed their problems. They talk about this kid or that old lady or this funny looking dog. They visited the same neighborhoods every day, and people knew their names. This was the kind of policing they wanted to do.

I’m hoping that a whole lot of small town police departments are watching the news and reading stories about this Justice Department report on Ferguson. It’s time to change idea that policing is about ticket money to make the city budget work. It’s time to go back to community policing, remembering why cops wanted to be cops in the first place.

And God? Please keep them safe and whole while they work to keep us safe and whole, even if they’re making a mess of it in the meantime.

As always, I remain,

Payne.

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