Op-ed: A first step toward reforming police behavior: reforming America’s city courts

With the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there’s been a growing conversation across America about the state of racism in the country, with many Americans supporting increased accountability for law enforcement. How can we start to build that accountability? The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, showed us that reforming America’s city courts is a good place to begin: In too many city courts across the country, judicial decisions and heavy-handed police action are driven by money, not by the public good.

In about a dozen states, city court judges are appointed and retained by the mayor and city council. This makes them vulnerable to political pressure from those who appointed them, as well as the police, prosecutors and other city administrators. Ferguson, where Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in 2014, is one of the places in which the city council hires and retains judges.

In Ferguson, the city court has shown how “the danger of political pressure skewing city court decisions is not an esoteric one,” Goldwater Institute National Investigative Journalist Mark Flatten writes. Flatten authored a series of reports on the “long-simmering issue” of “city courts being co-opted by political forces,” looking to Ferguson as an example of politics seeping into the justice system.

In the first of these reports, Flatten writes that in Ferguson, the “judge and his staff, as well as the police chief, were repeatedly urged to take steps to increase revenue to meet budget projections,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that looked into Ferguson’s police and court practices. This investigation revealed money and politics compromised the court’s independence and created a strong incentive for police action.

“The police chief did his part by implementing a ticket quota system, whereby police officers’ performance evaluations were tied to the number of citations they issued and the amount of revenue they generated,” Flatten writes. In short, this system put fair hearings in doubt.

“Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court,” the Justice Department concluded in its report, issued in March 2015. “The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.”

So therefore, according to the DOJ’s Ferguson report, freeing city courts from political influence is imperative in order to have an effective check on illegal police activity.

Among the reforms that ought to be taken to ensure this independence is to fund municipal courts through the state rather than having them funded by convictions. Another would be to make city court judges accountable to voters, so that these judges don’t answer to city officials and can’t be pressured to increase city revenue through convictions. Reform must be based on the idea that municipal courts exist to ensure justice, not to raise money for the city – that is key to creating the accountability in the criminal justice system Americans are now seeking. (You can read more about the Goldwater Institute’s recommendations for city court reform here.)

“The more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away,” wrote former President Barack Obama in a recent Medium post. And he’s absolutely correct: No matter how important the goal may be, calls for change have little chance of succeeding if they’re not backed by clearly defined policy goals.

To work toward real accountability in the wake of Floyd’s death, reforming our city court systems is a great first step in making a meaningful and positive difference.

The Center Square – Jennifer Tiedemann. Tiedemann is the Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.

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