- 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.
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Keeping their eyes on the money
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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Why levying fines lowers efficacy
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.
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Who’s getting squeezed?
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.