Long before the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown brought national attention to racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, zealous ticketing by a string of similar towns across the north side of St. Louis County had fed friction between the area’s largely white police departments and a growing black population.
An analysis by NBC News indicates that in recent years, Ferguson and other nearby jurisdictions have issued citations for low-level traffic and other violations at a per capita rate as much as a dozen times higher than cities in other parts of suburban St. Louis.
Data from the State Attorney General’s Office also shows that per capita, black drivers in the county are 66 percent more likely to be stopped than whites, and more likely to be arrested once stopped. The result, in a section of the county where the poor black population is growing and the older white population is declining, is that much of the interaction between police and the newer residents takes place during traffic stops.
“It’s not just Ferguson, it’s this whole region,” said Harvey. “My clients say that the police officer and the judge and the prosecutor are not on their side, and they are just viewed as a source of revenue."
The contrast between the north county towns and other more affluent cities can be stark. Ferguson, a city of about 21,000, filed 11,400 traffic cases in fiscal year 2013. Chesterfield, a largely white city in the western suburbs, filed almost the exact same number -- but is more than twice Ferguson's size.
Cases involving non-traffic ordinances, which range from loitering and trespassing to petty larceny, provide an even starker contrast, with Ferguson filing almost a dozen times as many per capita. Ferguson in fiscal year 2013 filed more than 12,300 such cases, more than any other city in the county, and up from 8,800 in 2009. Chesterfield filed just 2,300 in 2013.
Ferguson is not alone in its approach. Before dissolving its police department last year, Cool Valley, a majority-black city of fewer than 1,200, filed 7,558 non-ordinance violation cases and 1,717 traffic cases that did not involve drugs or alcohol.
In Carleton Park, where blacks now account for about half of the 1,300 residents, the combined total of tickets for both types of offenses rose more than 50 percent between 2009 and 2013 to nearly 7,500. In contrast, officials in the affluent, white western suburb of Ballwin, which has 24 times the population, wrote about 9,000 tickets.
Some officials have been critical of the rash of ticketing in northern St. Louis County. Among them is former St. Louis County Police Chief Tom Fitch. In a blog written before he retired last February, he railed in particular against speed cameras, which some towns have put up along major roadways to slow traffic, or, according to Fitch, “in order to generate as many violations as possible.” The result, he said, was to “feed off some of the poorest people in the St. Louis region.”
“It’s all about money -- that’s all they want,” said Antonio Morgan, 28, a resident of nearby Hazelwood who has been in and out of the county’s municipal courts since he was 16. “They don’t protect and serve anymore. When I was a kid, you talked to the police officers. In a black neighborhood, you can’t walk down the street without them pulling up on you. In the white community, they’re not doing that.”