Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Study: When cities rely on ticket revenue, police clearance rates decline

On the latest Reasonably Suspicious podcast, released yesterday, Mandy Marzullo and I discussed a theory suggested by Jay Wachtel that the innocence movement and measures taken to prevent false convictions had contributed to a decline in crime-clearance rates.

Grits wishes I'd read this Washington Post op ed, published online the day we recorded, before that conversation, and perhaps we'll revisit the topic. The authors suggested another provocative, possible cause of low clearance rates: A disproportionate focus by police on revenue generation over public safety.

The writers are academics who recently published a study demonstrating that "Police departments that collect more in fees and fines are less effective at solving crimes." In particular:
Examining nearly 6,000 cities’ finance and crime data for each of the two studied years, we find a strong link between revenue collection and clearance rates. Police departments in cities that collect a greater share of their revenue from fees, fines and civilly forfeited assets have significantly lower rates of solving violent and property crimes. 
We suspect that this comes simply from how these police departments focus their time and resources. Departments that need to collect fee and fine revenue shift their officers away from investigatory work. That’s especially true in smaller cities, where we found an especially clear link: Higher revenue from fees and fines meant fewer violent crimes solved. Cities with smaller departments and fewer resources are less likely to have specialized investigators, so when patrol officers are collecting revenue, they’re not investigating more serious crimes.
How big an effect are we talking about?
Let’s imagine a city of 50,000 people — call it Middletown — where the per capita income, racial demographics, crime rate and similar variables are the same as the state averages. Nationally, on average, municipalities bring in 2 percent of their revenue from fees and fines. If Middletown’s police department collected only about 1 percent of its revenue from fees and fines, our model predicts it would solve 53 percent of its violent crimes and 32 percent of its property crimes. But if Middletown’s police department instead collected 3 percent of its revenue from fees and fines, our model predicts that clearance rates would fall to 41 percent for violent crimes and 16 percent for property crimes. That’s a stark drop of 12 and 16 percentage points, respectively.
In the podcast, Mandy suggested that one viable, alternative theory for low clearance rates might be increased alienation between marginalized communities and law enforcement, and the study authors also framed their findings in that vein:
Some communities have a saying: “The police are never there when you need them and always there when you don’t.” Our findings help explain this adage. In cities where police are collecting revenue, communities are at once overpoliced — because they are charged with more fines and fees — and underpoliced — because serious crimes in their areas are less likely to be solved. 
This dynamic of simultaneous overpolicing and underpolicing reduces the community’s trust in policing and in government more generally. For many citizens, police interactions may be their only contact with any government official. If citizens see the police in particular and the government in general as exploiting them for revenue, they are unlikely to see either as allies in keeping their communities safe. Low clearance rates, especially for violent crimes, reduce public trust in the police and in government as a whole — leading them not to cooperate with either.
A reduction in crimes solved surely is an unintended consequence of municipal revenue generation through ticketing. But just because the costs are borne by crime victims, and not the taxpayers as a whole, doesn't justify government ignoring them.

Notably, at their state conventions in June, both the Republican Party of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party included provisions in their platforms calling for an end to jailing drivers for non-payment of traffic tickets and other Class C misdemeanor debt, using commercial collections methods, instead. This new analysis shows that such a shift in focus may result in more, actual crimes being solved, bolstering the case for reform.

One recalls former Dallas police Chief David Brown suggesting that society calls on law enforcement to handle too many problems. Surely, municipal revenue generation is one of those demands that should be taken off their plate.


Anonymous said...

Little Elm, Texas! Red light cameras!

Anonymous said...

So if I'm going to murder someone I need to do it in Buffalo?

Anonymous said...

In Lake Dallas Texas they use illegally placed stop signs as a sped control device (a aside it doesn't work) but it does generate a h*ll of a lot if cash.