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Amazing, Unknown Facts About the First Amendment: Ferguson, MO

2015-03-09

Here is a quote from the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division published on March 4, 2015:

“Under the Constitution, what a person says generally should not determine whether he or she is jailed. Police officers cannot constitutionally make arrest decisions based on individuals’ verbal expressions of disrespect for law enforcement, including use of foul language.   Buffkins v.City of Omaha, 922 F.2d 465, 472 (8th Cir. 1990) (holding that officers violated the Constitution when they arrested a woman for disorderly conduct after she called one an “asshole,” especially since “police officers are expected to exercise greater restraint in their response than the average citizen”); Copeland v. Locke, 613 F.3d 875, 880 (8th Cir. 2010) (holding that the FirstAmendment prohibited a police chief from arresting an individual who pointed at him and told him “move the f*****g car,” even if the comment momentarily distracted the chief from a routine traffic stop); Gorra v. Hanson, 880 F.2d 95, 100 (8th Cir. 1989) (holding that arresting a person in retaliation for making a statement “constitutes obvious infringement” of the First Amendment).

As the Supreme Court has held, “The Constitution protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.” City of Houston, Tex. v. Hill , 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987) (striking down as unconstitutionally overbroad a local ordinance that criminalized interference with police by speech)

These court decisions and, particularly, the statement by the Supreme Court just quoted, allow the public a broad degree of freedom of speech when directed at police officers.  They contradict what most parents would tell their children, that is, don’t be disrespectful towards policemen.  Common sense would suggest that one should not aggravate a policeman, particularly since they are not actually capable of “exercising greater restraint in their response than the average citizen.”

This is because policemen are constantly on edge and operating in fear when dealing with the public– something of which the “average citizen” simply is not aware.  This fear is revealed when talking to policemen in private, anonymously, and “off the record.”  The policeman is especially fearful when dealing with a person “of color”, that is an African-American or “black” individual, in fact, anyone who is dark complected or has brown skin.

This is one reason why the administration of justice is so badly broken in the United States.  It comes as a result of the background of the policeman: usually a poor, lower class white person who has little education and has few other opportunities for employment.  The primary qualifications for becoming a policeman are usually high school graduation and a perfectly “clean” arrest record.  Black people generally are handicapped in this respect because they are frequently arrested without cause and convicted without proof, resulting in a record which prevents them from becoming policemen.

It is not difficult for someone inclined towards interpersonal violence to avoid being arrested simply by choosing the right victims.  Bullying is usually not punished by law enforcement; it is overlooked if not actively encouraged in certain situations.

The low salary paid to policemen is a factor in that it discourages individuals who have any other alternatives from applying for such a job.  The fact that policemen usually carry semi-automatic pistols also encourages individuals who are inclined towards violence because it provides a societally sanctioned opportunity to shoot someone.

Despite these factors, there are many policemen who never draw or fire their weapons and who treat the public with respect and even deference.  Unfortunately, based on the report just cited, none of them are encouraged to continue as policemen at Ferguson, nor any other small town in Missouri or any other state.  The report details the pressures put on policemen to arrest as many people as possible in order to provide revenue for the administration of city government.

The report details instances of false arrest, infringement of constitutional rights, harassment, and imposition of payments on individuals least able to pay.  The report also makes it clear that these instances are the rule rather than the exception.

The sole purpose, it appears, of law enforcement in Ferguson (and most other small cities in St. Louis county) is to collect individuals who can be fined in order to pay for a significant portion of the city’s expenses.  By law in Missouri, a city is not to collect more than 30% of its revenue from fines.   In Ferguson, out of 21,000 people, the police have initiated arrests that lead to over $2 million a year in court revenue (in 2012), and the city administration is projecting increases of as much as 10% a year.  While this amount complies with state law limiting percentage of revenue, it represents a heavy burden on a population of which 25% of individuals take home less than poverty level incomes.

An odd statistic: in 1990, the census recorded Ferguson as 75% white, but in 2010, it was 67% black.  93% of arrestees are black.  Of 54 sworn police officers, 4 are black, and none of the city councilmembers are black.  One reason for this disparity is that blacks vote in much smaller percentages than whites; the reasons behind this lack of voting are unknown to those who have written about it.

Clearly, voting is essential to a democracy, and just as clearly, the United States population has failed to exercise their democratic responsibilities.  For example, in the 2014 “off year” elections, only 35% of eligible voters actually cast ballots.  In presidential elections, a small majority of those eligible do vote, but this is hardly a laudable result.

In my humble opinion, the most important thing wrong with the United States government is that it fails to represent the people because voters don’t participate in elections.  If everyone who was eligible really voted, we would have a much greater degree of accountability in our government.

In some countries, voting is a legal requirement; Australia is an example.  This does not guarantee that the government will be perfect, nor even dramatically better.  It does, however, guarantee that government has a real mandate from the people, which will surely increase its respect and legitimacy.  More importantly, it would make it more likely that government will obtain its operating revenue from those most able to pay: those who are well off.  In Ferguson, the poorest suffer the greatest burden of policing, which is most often illegitimate and unfair.

By an odd coincidence, the minimum wage in Australia is the equivalent of $15 an hour, there is universal health care, and employment laws require that employees be given full time work wherever possible (in contrast to WalMart, where the vast majority of employees are “temporary” and “part time” without any benefits, and a significant portion have to get food stamps and other government assistance.)

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