Exploitative Revenues, Law Enforcement, and the Quality of Government Service

By Rebecca Goldstein (Harvard University), Michael W. Sances (University of Memphis), and Hye Young You (New York University)

One aspect of recent criticism of police departments has been centered on the aggressive imposition and collection of fees, fines, and civilly forfeited assets. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri police department, for example, revealed that a key driver of the behavior of the Ferguson police was the desire to generate municipal revenue by issuing traffic tickets and imposing fees. More broadly, a growing body of evidence indicates that local police departments are being used to provide revenue for municipalities by imposing and collecting fees, fines, and asset forfeitures: Census of Governments data from 2012 shows that about 80 percent of American cities with law enforcement institutions derive at least some revenue from fees, fines, and asset forfeitures, with about 6 percent of cities collecting more than 10 percent of their revenues from fines in 2012 (Sances and You 2017). Are the police engaged in this fee and fine collection at the expense of other important activities?

In our paper for Urban Affairs Review, we investigate specifically whether revenue collection activities compromise the criminal investigation functions of local police departments. We do so by combining municipal finance data from the Census of Governments with crime clearance data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, in order to study the relationship between police-generated local revenue and crime clearance rates (that is, the rate at which a person or persons are charged or otherwise identified by law enforcement as perpetrators of particular crimes). In cities where the proportion of local revenue coming from fines and fees is higher, there is presumably more pressure on the local police to raise revenue, and they might engage in revenue generating activities instead of investigating crimes when such resource allocation decisions must be made on the margin. In addition, aggressive collection of fines and fees by police officers could affect local residents’ trust in law enforcement officers. In turn, this may lead to less cooperation from citizens to solve crimes at the local level, which also could contribute to less effective police investigations.

We find that, in cities where a relatively higher share of revenue is collected through fines, fees, and asset forfeitures, violent and property crimes are cleared at a relatively lower rate, conditional on the background crime rate, the overall police budget, and a host of relevant sociodemographic variables. In particular, we find that a 1 percent increase in the share of own-source revenues from fees, fines, and forfeitures is associated with a statistically and substantively significant 6.1 percentage point decrease in the violent crime clearance rate and 8.3 percentage in the property crime clearance rate (the mean share of city revenues from fees, fines, and forfeitures is 2 percent in our data).

Importantly, the effect on violent crime clearance is driven entirely by small cities where populations are under 28,010 (the bottom 80 percent of the city population distribution in our data). This is notable because large police departments tend to have many specialized divisions charged with performing specific functions. Therefore, in a large police department, it is unlikely that revenue pressure would affect a department’s decisions to choose between different types of activities, since most officers are confined to specific functions. However, police studies scholars have documented that in small town police departments all officers perform many tasks, including both criminal investigation and fee and fine enforcement. Thus, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that officers devote time to revenue collection rather than investigation in departments where officers perform a wide variety of functions. Indeed, in smaller cities, the average number of full-time sworn officers is 20, whereas that number is 248 in larger cities.

Decreased levels of crime clearance are a problem because research suggests that low clearance rates for violent crimes in disadvantaged neighborhoods are related to low levels of trust in the local police force. This paper suggests that aggressive fee and fine enforcement can compound this problem by further diverting resources from investigations that might identify perpetrators. Both the institutional and the individual harms of aggressive fee and fine collection fall heavily on a city’s most disadvantaged residents: fees and fines are most frequently imposed on them and they are most likely to become victims of crimes.

Our work contributes to political scientists’ growing focus on the causes and consequences of local law enforcement practices. Recent research points to the unequal impacts of involuntary contacts with law enforcement officials on residents’ political participation (Lerman and Weaver 2014). Our results complement the existing research by documenting one of the institutional causes of unequal policing — the use of police officers as revenue generators — and one of its institutional consequences — compromising police departments’ roles as public safety providers. The analysis we present here also has important implications for proposed criminal justice reforms. Recent high-profile tensions between Black citizens and police officers in the United States have led to protests and calls for reforms. The ensuing popular and scholarly discussion of inequality in police practices in the United States has been focused for the most part on individual police officers’ implicit bias or lack of appropriate training. Our results suggest that institutional reforms at local level, such as decreasing municipal government reliance on fines and fees for revenue, may also be an important step for reforming criminal justice systems and providing higher levels of public safety.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Rebecca Goldstein is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Her research interests include local politics, racial and ethnic politics, the politics of criminal justice policy, and police behavior.

Michael W. Sances is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Temple University. His research interests include local politics, inequality, and political representation.

Hye Young You is an assistant professor in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University. Her research interests include special interest groups, money in politics, and local politics.

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