from the treating-drivers-like-ATMs dept
Small towns strapped for cash sometimes decide to use their law enforcement agencies to generate a steadily increasing revenue stream. Towns that otherwise would never have been noticed by non-residents have achieved national notoriety by unofficially rebranding as Speed Trap, USA.
Sometimes this notoriety leads to punishment by other government agencies. A small town in Oklahoma was banned from enforcing traffic laws by the state’s Department of Safety after it came to light the town of 410 people was employing six police officers to haul in nearly $500,000 in fees in a single year — 76% of the town’s revenue.
Another small town is generating some national press about its abusive traffic enforcement operations. Brookside, Alabama has only 1,253 residents. But it has nine police officers, two drug dogs (including one named “Cash”), a mine-resistant SWAT vehicle obtained through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, and an unquenchable thirst for traffic enforcement revenue.
In the last couple of years — under Chief Mike Jones (who was hired in 2018 and was then the town’s only sworn officer) — Brookside’s revenue has increased exponentially. Update: Following this controversy, Jones announced his resignation.
Police stops soared between 2018 and 2020. Fines and forfeitures – seizures of cars during traffic stops, among other things – doubled from 2018 to 2019. In 2020 they came to $610,000. That’s 49% of the small town’s skyrocketing revenue.
But the chief seems disappointed with this haul.
“I see a 600% increase – that’s a failure. If you had more officers and more productivity you’d have more,” Jones said. “I think it could be more.”
Nearby law enforcement officials see Brookside and its traffic enforcement as a problem. A district attorney from a neighboring county calls Brookside a “black hole” where drivers and their vehicles (which are often towed immediately following a traffic stop) disappear into the town’s revenue generation machinery. A local sheriff says he’s received calls from drivers claiming to have been pulled over and ticketed by Brookside officers… despite being nowhere near the town.
Here are some more troubling stats:
The town with no traffic lights collected $487 in fines and forfeitures in 2020 for every man, woman and child, though many of those fined were merely passing by on I-22.
[P]olice in 2020 patrolled 114,438 miles in the 6.3-mile town and issued more than 3,000 citations – a 692% increase from 2018.
And the police department directly benefits from this enforcement-driven revenue increase.
From 2018 to 2020, spending on police rose from $79,000 to $524,000, a 560% increase. The town’s administrative expenditures rose 40% and overall spending jumped 112%, from $553,000 in 2018 to $1.2 million in 2020.
Even if this obscene amount of traffic enforcement was the only thing worth reporting, it would still be concerning. But Chief Jones’ department engages in other troubling, literally shady tactics while converting drivers to currency.
Chief Jones testified under oath that just one of the 10 Brookside vehicles is painted with police striping, but nine others bear no emblems, and seven are tinted all the way around, making it impossible to see inside. Jones testified his officers wear gray uniforms with no Brookside insignias.
Unmarked cars. Unmarked officers. All deployed in search of presumably unmarked bills. And they’ve been emboldened by Chief Jones’ cash-oriented efforts, which has led to officers engaging in abusive behavior that goes beyond the abuse of petty (or imagined) traffic crimes to extract cash and seize vehicles.
Brookside officers have been accused in lawsuits of fabricating charges, using racist language and “making up laws” to stack counts on passersby.
The best time to drive through (or near) Brookside might be during its once-a-month court session, where officers are needed to route the considerable amount of traffic to parking areas and presumably others are tied up offering testimony.
This abuse of police power is generating legal activity. The AL.com report says the town and its PD now face no fewer than five lawsuits. Given the amount of money the department has extracted from Alabama residents, the legal war fund should be well-stocked. Unfortunately, this means those suing Brookside have already contributed to the town’s defense fund, albeit months in advance of their litigation.