COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina lawmaker who doubles as an attorney for the family of a police shooting victim is offering solutions to what advocates call “predatory policing” policies, which pressure officers to generate revenue by ticketing citizens for minor offenses.
Rep. Justin Bamberg wants to prohibit law enforcement agencies in the state from setting traffic ticket quotas, or evaluating officers by the number of citations they write. A companion bill would prohibit cities and counties from approving budgets that depend on future revenue from traffic fines.
“It puts pressure on officers to go out and stop people for ridiculous stuff or things they normally wouldn’t. It puts officers in a difficult position,” said Bamberg, who filed the bills for the session starting Tuesday. “It also makes citizens feel like they’re being harassed or stopped for petty things.”
Bamberg, a Democrat, also represents the family of Walter Scott, the black man who was shot repeatedly in the back last year as he ran from North Charleston officer Michael Slager, now charged with his murder.
That fatal encounter never would have happened if public institutions in South Carolina didn’t count on funding from fines and fees, advocates say.
Scott’s family says he likely fled because he feared going to jail for unpaid child support. Slager’s lawyer, Andy Savage, said the fired officer never would have pulled Scott over for a broken third brake light if not for a police quota system that he claimed required officers to stop three drivers a day.
Police in North Charleston have denied imposing any quotas, and other law enforcement leaders say they don’t exist.
“I know there’s a perception that there are quotas, but we don’t have quotas,” said Greer Police Chief Dan Reynolds, a past president of the state Police Chiefs Association. “I’ve never gotten pressure to write tickets from anybody, and if I did, I’d ignore it.”
But the problem remains serious enough nationwide to be addressed by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed to rebuild trust after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
The task force recommended that police and governments should not require “officers to issue a predetermined number of tickets, citations, arrests, or summonses, or to initiate investigative contacts with citizens for reasons not directly related to improving public safety, such as generating revenue.”
Reynolds says his town doesn’t depend on ticket revenue, and “most goes to the state anyway.”
That’s because South Carolina’s courts and police training academy are funded through fines and fees. A driver stopped for speeding through a municipality will actually pay $133.75 on a $50 ticket, due to state surcharges, including a $5 surcharge that goes exclusively to police training.
“The state lets us know when tickets are down,” Reynolds said, but he insists there’s no pressure to write tickets.
“It’s just sad they have to rely on ticket revenue. They shouldn’t have to. It’s a government function,” he said.
Geoffrey Alpert, a policing expert at the University of South Carolina, said he hasn’t seen “hard quotas” since racial profiling got agencies nationwide in trouble in the 1990s, but he said some agencies still pressure officers to write tickets.
Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney with Washington-based Equal Justice Under Law advocacy organization, said there have been too few outside investigations to gauge the problem.
“Even when you don’t have formal quotas, there’s an understanding often among people who work in the system that their job performance and rating is based on the amount of business they bring in,” Karakatsanis said.
Smaller, more rural towns typically rely more on tickets for their budgets than bigger government agencies, Bamberg said.
In North, a town of about 800 south of Columbia, the entire police force (a chief and two officers) quit after claiming that the newly elected mayor wanted them to triple their ticket writing. Mayor Patty Carson declined to comment for this story.
At the county level, traffic fines are a drop in the bucket, said Kershaw County Finance Director Vic Carpenter. The $160,000 his county budgeted for collections this fiscal year would cover less than 4 percent of what it takes to run its sheriff’s office, he added.
Still, Bamberg’s bill would create a one-year budget hole because it would require municipalities to wait to spend revenue collected in fines until the next fiscal year.
Using police and courts to generate revenue, rather than raising taxes, is a “scary trend” nationwide, said Karakatsanis.
“This preys on the most vulnerable people,” Karakatsanis said in a phone interview from Ferguson, where he represents people jailed in what his group calls a modern-day “debtors’ prison” for failing to pay fines for minor offenses.
Bamberg, the son of longtime law enforcement officers, said his bills aim to restore trust.
“This is not an attack on law enforcement,” said the 28-year-old freshman legislator. “I want community and law enforcement to have a good relationship.”