Police fines fund city budgets but hurt community relations : The Indicator from Planet Money Police fines and fees have helped to fill city coffers, but they've done serious damage to community relations.
NPR logo

Who Pays For The Police?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/878861015/878870754" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Who Pays For The Police?

Who Pays For The Police?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/878861015/878870754" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript




Celeste Sawyer lives in Florida, right near Orlando.

CELESTE SAWYER: I am a single mom of five beautiful daughters ranging from 16 to 11, and there is a set of identical twins in there that drive everyone crazy.

VANEK SMITH: Back in 2012, Celeste was working a job that paid her $10 an hour, and she was also raising her five girls. Money was super tight, but things were manageable, until this one day. This one small moment started a big chain of events to unfold.

SAWYER: I picked up my kids one day after school. My kids had just had a career day at school with a police officer. So when we were stopped at a light on our way home, one of my twins saw a police officer pull up next to us. So she takes off the top portion of her seatbelt that goes across her chest to roll down her window and scream, hi, Mr. Policeman. And then he pulls in front of me.


The officer said that Celeste's daughter was in violation of the seatbelt law, and he issued her a ticket. And then, he issued tickets for all of Celeste's children. But all her other children did have their seatbelts on. That's what Celeste told our producer, Camille Petersen.

SAWYER: Each ticket was two-hundred-and-something dollars.

CAMILLE PETERSEN, BYLINE: Wow. How many did you get?


GARCIA: More than $1,000. Celeste was terrified. So she went to traffic court to dispute the tickets.

SAWYER: The judge threw it out. They took away every seatbelt ticket.

VANEK SMITH: Celeste was incredibly relieved. She would not have to pay the thousand-plus dollars that she did not have. But then, she was told she did still owe some money. She owed court fees.

SAWYER: It's like, hey, the judge said that he'll let everything go, but you got to pay these 600 odd something dollars. I was making $10 an hour supporting five children. I don't have 600 odd something dollars. OK, well, I'm going to put you on this payment plan. And then when I put you on this payment plan, it's going to automatically add interest and everything to it like it's a credit card.

GARCIA: And, Celeste says, until the money was paid off entirely, her license would be suspended. Celeste was not sure what to do. She needed her car to get to work and to get her kids to school. Taking public transportation would take hours that she just did not have. She thought, I'm a safe driver, so I'll just take the risk. I'll drive with a suspended license. Then she got pulled over again.

SAWYER: I'm hustling and trying to work overtime and stuff like that to get the money together to pay the court costs. And then I get pulled over again, and I end up going to jail. I went to jail in front of my children.

VANEK SMITH: Celeste was put in jail for driving with a suspended license. And she says the whole thing just felt surreal. She had never even gotten a speeding ticket. And she says the way that she was treated and spoken to while in police custody is something that she won't forget.

SAWYER: Each time that they arrest you, they find each way to degrade you. So you don't want to piss anybody off. You don't know how the process actually works. All you know is whatever they're telling you, you're going to hope and pray that it's right and that you get off and get to go home.

GARCIA: Celeste did get to go home. Except now, she had fines and fees from her ticket for driving with a suspended license and for her arrest, and that's on top of the court fees that she owed for the seatbelt ticket charge in the first place.

This is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. One of the biggest ways police departments and cities make money now is through fees and fines. Many cities have come to count on that revenue. But the rise of these fees and fines has created some serious consequences.

GARCIA: The fines have hit communities of color and low-income communities harder than others, and it also appears to have done real damage to the relationship between police and the communities that they are serving. And the problem could be about to get a lot worse.


VANEK SMITH: Police departments used to basically get all of their money from taxes. But back in the '80s, there was a wave of tax cuts, and fees and fines emerged as a way to generate extra money for police departments and cities. Dr. Jennifer Doleac is an economist at Texas A&M University. She says fees and fines from traffic stops, jaywalking and court fees have become a central part of many city budgets.

JENNIFER DOLEAC: The most classic example is just those, like, traffic tickets. In Chicago, traffic tickets make up more than 7% of the city's total revenues.

VANEK SMITH: Of the city's total revenues?

DOLEAC: Of the city's total revenues, and not even just the police department.

VANEK SMITH: In Chicago?

DOLEAC: Uh-huh.

VANEK SMITH: And police have reported feeling enormous pressure to issue tickets to bring in money. And when budgets are tight, studies have shown that the number of speeding tickets does go up.

GARCIA: Now, everybody likes low taxes, Jennifer says. But the reliance on fees and fines has created some problems. First, people of color and low-income Americans are far more likely to be the ones to pay these fees and fines.

VANEK SMITH: In Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014, fees and fines made up 20% of the city's budget. Eighty-five percent of the people pulled over in traffic stops were African American, and 95% of fees collected for jaywalking were paid by African Americans.

DOLEAC: These types of fees and fines bear most heavily on minority communities because they don't have the political capital to really push back. And so, you know, whatever money they can bring in is basically - there's no fight.

GARCIA: Celeste Sawyer discovered this firsthand when she and her family moved to a wealthier neighborhood some years ago. Those traffic stops that she'd been dealing with just stopped.

SAWYER: I would say that I'm in the more privileged side of town. And because I'm over here, I drive to Winn-Dixie, I don't have those worries. I can be blasting music and laughing and joking in the car with my kids and not worry that I'm going to get pulled over. You go 10 miles down the road into Orlando, it's 10 and 2, put your hands on the wheel, look straight, drive the speed limit.

VANEK SMITH: The inequality of these fees and fines isn't only unjust, it has also been incredibly destructive for police community relations, says Jennifer Doleac, because suddenly, the police aren't simply serving and protecting people. They have to make money off of them. And that, says Jennifer, destroys the trust between police and the communities they serve.

DOLEAC: If your sense is basically every interaction is just a way for them to line their own pockets, it certainly doesn't make you want to cooperate with them or trust that they actually have your best interest at heart. And so I think this issue of trust is really fundamental in this whole conversation about how to reform policing. Police cannot do their job without the community's trust, and the trust is just completely destroyed in a lot of communities. And I think that the fees and fines issue is a major source of the mistrust that exists.

GARCIA: Celeste Sawyer is a good example of this loss of trust. She says that traffic stop eight years ago and all the trouble that came after has forever changed the way that she sees the police.

SAWYER: There's a just - we're going to do whatever we want to do with you, and you got to figure out how to live in our world is what it feels like. I have no respect for them and the jobs that they do. And it sounds bad, but I don't. I've never had an encounter with the police that has come out positive - not one. My kids don't trust cops. I don't trust cops.

VANEK SMITH: Jennifer Doleac worries the current calls to defund the police could make this problem worse. She's worried that politicians will cut police budgets as a fast way to appease voters, and that could mean the police and cities start relying even more on fees and fines for money. And most of that money will likely come from the people who can least afford to pay it.

GARCIA: Like Celeste Sawyer, who says that between all the fines and fees and tickets from that one seat belt incident eight years ago, she's ended up paying around $10,000.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.