Excessive police fines substantially decrease public safety, study reveals

Handing out tickets might be distracting police departments from working on more serious crimes.

Excessive police fines substantially decrease public safety, study reveals
Flickr user Tanenhaus
  • Recent research uncovered that the more a city's police department collects fines and fees, the less effective they are at solving crimes.
  • In cities where violent crimes are not solved, trust in the police goes down. As a result, citizens report fewer crimes to the police, causing a vicious cycle.
  • To address this, cities need to focus less on fining those who break minor laws and focus more on violent/property crimes.


For those of you who've traveled through the U.S. on a road trip before, this is probably a familiar experience. The miles are slipping by, and you're zooming along at a comfortable 70 miles per hour. A speed-limit sign zips by: 35 miles per hour. Suddenly, a Crown Victoria with blue and red flashing lights and a siren pulls out of a side street concealed by the trees. Minutes later, you've earned yourself a $90 ticket and some points on your car insurance.

Sure, regulating speed is important, but some cities in America seem hell-bent on applying the squeeze. It might ruin your day, but for the city, it's a great way to drum up some extra revenue. But, it turns out that police departments that focus on collecting fines and fees for the city also do a worse job at solving crimes.

Keeping their eyes on the money

The revenue from fines and fees like parking tickets are used to bump up the city's budget.

Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel

A recent study published in Urban Affairs Review took a look at the correlation between how much money cities collected through police departments and how well those police departments solved crimes. About 80% of U.S. cities get some portion of their revenue from the fines and fees levied by police departments. The worst 6% of these cities relied on fines and fees for as much as 10% of their revenue. If you were hoping to figure out which cities to avoid on your next road trip, the study regrettably did not name them.

The researchers found a startingly correlation: for every 1% of a city's budget that was derived from police fees and fines, 6.1% fewer violent crimes and 8.3% fewer property crimes were solved.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at three different data sets.

  1. The Census of Governments, which collects data on the budget compositions of the roughly 90,000 local governments in the U.S., including how much of their budget comes from fines and fees
  2. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data, which collects statistics on violent crimes (like murder) and property crimes (like car theft or burglary) as well as how many of those crimes have been solved
  3. The Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, which contains data on the size of police forces, their budget, the various roles of a city's police officers, and other statistics on local law enforcement

Looking through these data sets and examining the relationships within, the researchers came up with a few different explanations for why collecting more fines lowered crime clearance rates.

Why levying fines lowers efficacy

Part of the reason why more fines issued means fewer crimes solved is that fining people takes up a significant chunk of a police officer's time.

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

First, aggressively enforcing laws that accrue fines and fees (like setting up speed traps) can use up the time officers would otherwise use to solve crimes. Importantly, smaller cities—those with less than 28,010 citizens—had the strongest relationship between higher revenue collection and lower crime-solving rates.

This is because larger cities generally have specialized police forces, where some officers specifically enforce laws that generate city revenue and other officers pursue violent crime or property crime. Smaller cities don't have this luxury. Generally, their police officers do every kind of job a police officer might do. So, when the city puts a greater emphasis on collecting revenue, the officers have less time to do their work.

The study also offered another explanation. Research shows that the more negative interactions there are with police officers, the less a population trusts those officers. Traffic stops are by far the most common type of interaction between the general public and the police. Not only are these inherently unpleasant interactions between the police and a citizen, but the increased rate of traffic stops also increases the likelihood that something will go wrong.

With less trust between a population and its police, 911 is called less frequently, making it more difficult to solve crimes. What's more, this leads to a vicious cycle—research has also shown that a higher rate of unsolved violent crimes leads to less trust in the police.

Who’s getting squeezed?

The study found that African-American and poor communities tended to be fined the most.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Since we're talking about broken police practices in America, it'll come as no surprise that rich, white folk aren't the ones getting screwed. The study noted that "cities with a higher number of African-Americans, less-educated residents, lower tax revenues, and lower […] representation of minorities [in local government] tend to collect a greater share of revenues from fines and fees." Every 10% increase in the population of African-Americans in a city was also associated with a 1.1% lower rate of crime clearance. So, the more African-Americans in a city, the more likely police are to extract fines and fees from its residents and the less likely they are to work on solving crimes. This explanation also fits well with the well-studied fact that many African-American communities in U.S. cities have very little trust in the police.

It's important to note that this study didn't establish causality. Just because a police department with higher rates of fine and fee collection has lower rates of crime clearance doesn't mean the first causes the second; they're just related figures. For instance, the authors noted that higher crime rates might discourage people from moving to the city, driving down the property values. Since a city gets most of its revenue from property taxes, the city might have no choice but to aggressively fine its residents.

Ultimately, however, the effect is the same: relatively law-abiding citizens get taxed for breaking minor laws, while violent criminals and thieves get away with their crimes. If we want to fix crime in America and for our cities to prosper, police departments and city governments need to focus less on squeezing their residents for every penny and more on solving crimes that truly damage our cities.


CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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