Taxation by Citation: Policing For Profit

Tickets, fines, fees, surcharges, and asset forfeiture are all forms of policing for profit, and it’s lead to more discord within local communities.

June 8, 2020

By: Bobby Casey, Managing Director GWP

policing for profit I remember when people called out George W. Bush about his foreign policy. “The US is not the police of the world!” they rightly exclaimed.

The vast majority of people believe that the military should be deployed for defensive purposes, not offensive. I agree.

But when the US military gets the budgets that it does to police the world, you gotta wonder why? As the old bromide goes: follow the money. Some people get incredibly rich off these “Occupational Contingency Operations”.

When the US invaded Iraq after Saudi nationals hijacked a plane and ran it into the Twin Towers, I have to admit, I was perplexed. I still don’t know why the US military is still occupying Afghanistan.

That’s the global level of policing for profit.

Domestically, I’ve been writing about asset forfeiture and debtors prisons in the US for years. I’m in the business of asset protection, and in most cases, it’s to protect your assets from the government!

Recent events are once again highlighting the great folly of the police state, with protests erupting throughout the US. One of the rally cries I hear is “Defund the Police”.

Defunding the police is like saying cut the military budget: it’s a sacred cow politically. When people said to cut the military budget, others balked proclaiming that would leave the US vulnerable.

The reality is, the US spends more on its military than the next several countries combined, so cutting the budget wouldn’t really affect the efficacy of the military at all. In fact, the US Department of Defense has LOST more money than most countries spend on their military, and wastes more money than any other agency in the US. It can’t even pass an audit with a twenty-year head start.

The same is true of police. They get more money than the feel-good social services everyone thinks taxes are supposed to go toward.

Los Angeles spends $3.14 billion:

The total budget for the LAPD is $3.14 billion. But that includes pensions, healthcare costs, and other expenses that are fixed and that the mayor and City Council can’t control right now. From their discretionary pool of money, they will allocate $1.86 billion to policing.

What makes this particularly bad, is how the mayor sold the residents on a plan to help the homeless, but the ten-year budget on that is dwarfed by the annual budget for the police. That is a rather clear sign of where their budgetary priorities are in Los Angeles:

That surpasses the $1.2 billion that Garcetti swayed voters to spend on 10,000 apartments for homeless residents over the course of a decade. The mayor has slashed general fund spending for the Housing + Community Investment Department, which oversees the Proposition HHH program, by $1.2 million, and its staffers are among the 16,000 civilian employees who will be furloughed to save money as city revenue has been decimated by the pandemic. (Meanwhile, LAPD officers with college degrees will receive $41 million in bonuses.)

All in, the US spends $100 billion in policing annually; $80 billion jailing people. But here are some staggering numbers on some city budgets that make me wonder why spending is so high:

  • Big cities like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, and Houston spent more than 25 percent of their general fund budgets on their police departments, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy.

  • Chicago and Oakland spent even more, 40 percent. And while New York City’s share was far lower at 9 percent (because the city had a much larger total budget, including a system of public hospitals), the dollar amount it spent was staggering, almost $5 billion—or $581 per person. The city’s police budget has since risen to $6 billion.

  • In Baltimore, for every dollar spent on police, 55 cents is spent on schools, five cents is spent on the city’s jobs programs, and a penny is spent on mental health services and violence prevention.

Schools, hospitals, and transportation all see cuts before the police department. Regardless of whether crime is up or down, police see even or higher budgets.

But why? How can everyone else tighten their belts, but police cannot?

The problem is two fold: 1. Qualified immunity; and 2. Revenues.

Qualified immunity is just like what I described for the TSA: they are excused from taking any civil responsibility for their actions, so they are unaccountable for their civil violations. Justin Amash is trying to push legislation that does away with this loophole.

Intertwined with that is the police unions who often prevent it from getting as far as needing qualified immunity in the first place. In order to need qualified immunity, formal charges would need to be leveled first. Unions prevent that from happening. As Johnathan Adler points out:

Limiting (if not eliminating) qualified immunity would certainly help (though there’s a reasonable debate whether this is more properly done through legislative reform than through the courts). On the other hand, the effects of eliminating qualified immunity may be limited if police departments indemnify their officers.

Peter Suderman takes it one step further:

This is what police unions do: defend the narrow interests of police at the expense of public safety. They exist to demand that taxpayers pay for dangerous, and even deadly, negligence. And although they are not the only pathology that affects American policing, they are a key internal influence on police culture, a locus of resistance to improvements designed to reduce police violence. To stop bad cops and police abuse, we must tackle police unions.

If you have a union that will close ranks and qualified immunity if that wagon circle is insufficient, how do you hold this institution accountable for anything? It’s no wonder policing is done with such impunity since there are no consequences for bad actions.

This is highlights the inherent problem with forced monopolies on things like force and violence.

Yes, there needs to be structural reforms to the way in which policing is done, and greater accountability… but none of this explains their budgets.

It comes back to policing for profit. The fact of the matter is, police are revenue generators. That’s why you can have clusters of police out writing tickets, but thousands of rape kits go untested or investigated.

Fines, fees, and asset forfeiture are a revenue source used to offset taxes. Rather than raise taxes, police need to get out there and rake in the revenue.

“If pressure to generate revenue from fines and fees comes without additional resources such as higher budgetary resources for law enforcement, local police officers may need to compromise their traditional roles in criminal investigation in favor of revenue generation from fines and fees due to limited resources.”

In the 2015 fiscal year, New York City collected $1.9 billion in fines and fees, due in large part to street cameras catching people running red lights or driving in bus and bike lanes. It turns out, police can squeeze an ROI out of their respective cities on totally paltry charges while hanging dangerous criminal investigations out to dry.

You could argue that larger municipalities have special divisions for violent crimes. It’s true, they do. But I can also argue that when the police in New York City decided to suspend broken window or “proactive” policing, violent crimes dropped. The petty outreach is not really necessary for public safety but loosely hides behind that facade to generate city revenues.

If New York can spend $5 billion on the police, and make back $1.9 billion, that appears to be a more politically acceptable way in which to generate revenues than taxes.

Look at the states and the incentives behind civil asset forfeiture. You can clearly see which states rely on this as a means of revenue generation.

Look at the municipalities that clearly rely on revenues from tickets and fines. One example is from California:

“In California, routine traffic tickets now carry a multiplicity of revenue-boosting “surcharges.” As a result, the true price of a $100 traffic ticket is more like $490 — and up to $815 with late fees, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

It’s called “taxation by citation”. I saw a few folks joke about it on social media. Since the economy took such a hit during the corona virus lock downs, they suggested that cops will be out in full effect when cities start to reopen to make up for their shortfall.

Two agendas are at play: revenue generation and career building. If you aren’t in the revenue class then you’re in the career class, but either way you could serve one of those two ends. Career building is when you hear politicians running on a platform of “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance”. Basically, the arrests and convictions are to show how they are keeping their community safe.

This is a short-sighted way to go about policing. All it does is sow the seeds of distrust. The tough part of all this is: so long as legislators insist upon the criminalization of everything, and rely on enforcement to generate revenue from it, we will continue to see routine stops escalate to needless deaths.

It’s no different from prisons for profit. Once you introduce a profit incentive in enforcement, you’ve turned the entire executive branch of government into a hammer that only sees nails. Try convincing a thief to let go of a multi billion dollar heist that is a sure thing. Tell greedy politicians to end revenues from the penal codes and ask them to cut pet projects.

In the end, the motivation is secondary to the actions. Whether it’s the color of your skin, your tax bracket, or both, a thief wants what it wants. And if they are protected by a powerful union and qualified immunity, they will get what they want.

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