Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tempe politicians want police to run collections for campaign reform plan

Tempe city councilors hope people of color, poor won't mind footing the bill for politicians' backbone transplants

In what must rank as one of the most boneheaded moves in Tempe government history, the Tempe city council is considering turning to a regressive fee tacked onto traffic tickets in order to pay for a public campaign system for city council and mayoral elections, all in the name of thwarting the increasing grip that developers have on the upside-down pyramid.

Citing an electoral system taken prisoner by developers, local elected officials hope that adding a fee on top of speeding tickets will raise an independent source of revenue for funding candidates not captive to wealthy real estate interests (presumably these captives include the current council).

Speaking to AzCentral, Councilman Schapira described the current workings of city government in bleak terms:
“Right now in Tempe, if you’re a pro-developer council member who always votes the way developers want you to vote, developers are going to find a way to finance your campaign and you’re basically guaranteed re-election.”
The evidence for his claim is plain to see for most anyone in Tempe with eyes. The pace of new building in Tempe is rapid and, fueled by tax breaks doled out left and right by the city, aims almost exclusively for the luxury market. 

Locals feel increasingly squeezed out. Many have seen their rents sky rocket in recent years. Rising rents are a common complaint on a downtown Tempe neighborhood group, Maple-Ash-Farmer-Wilson (MAFW), which boasts nearly 3300 members.

A recent ABC15 piece pointed out that Tempe average rents have jumped nearly $250 since 2010 with most of that almost certainly coming in the more current end of that range. 

Tempe rents rising steeply (graphs via ABC15)
Clearly there is a problem. City council is basically waving the white flag to developers and telling city residents quite clearly that they have no backbone and that they are helpless before the developer juggernaut. 

But while almost everyone who isn't receiving a massive tax break to build luxury condos can probably agree that stemming the influence of real estate profiteers is a noble cause, there's a big problem with the solution some city councilors are putting forward.

A fee placed on speeding tickets has several serious issues, not least of all questions about the group implementing it and who's going to pay for it. Since the fee is attached to speeding tickets, the task of collection falls to the Tempe Police Department. Let's address that first.

Last November, Down and Drought broke the story locally about massive disparities in Tempe PD's African-American arrest rate. Following unrest in Ferguson sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, USA Today reviewed arrest reports nationwide. That investigation found that the disproportionate arrest of blacks was common throughout the country, but specifically it noted that many cities, including Tempe, arrested blacks at rates higher than Ferguson PD.

This information recently raised serious questions about the ability of Tempe PD to do their job without a racial bias. Downtown residents took concerns about this data to the city and officials discussed it at a February 10th meeting of the Tempe Human Relations Committee (.PDF).

Via Feb 10th Tempe Human Relations Committee Minutes
At another meeting with the city, Tempe residents were assured that in response to the data, a massive Tempe policing operation known as "Safe and Sober" would be canceled. 

The operation, highly unpopular in the party-prone neighborhoods surrounding ASU, featured over a dozen and sometimes nearly 20 police agencies flooding the area, stopping thousands of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians over the course of several weekends, ostensibly to combat what the city called "rowdyism." Partying, essentially. Something many locals consider a birthright.

Considering the USA Today data, residents of MAFW demanded that the city account for the racial breakdown in those stops. The city replied that it had no way to track that data because police agencies from other cities took those reports with them when they left. Whether true or not, claiming incompetence is not a very inspiring defense.

Considering the scale of the program and the disparities USA Today had revealed, the city wisely canceled the program. Taking that data into account, for the two years it ran Safe and Sober may have been one of the biggest profiling operations in the country, in the same category as NYC's racist "Stop and Frisk" program.

Graphic via State Press

In February, The Republic wrote of disproportionate Black arrest rates in the Valley. The article noted that three East Valley cities, including Tempe, "arrested Black people at a rate higher than in Ferguson, Mo." in 2011 and 2012. Despite initial challenges to the data in the article, our own internal data ultimately showed the same thing.

In the same years examined in the article, our data showed that Black Tempe residents were arrested at nearly three times the rate of White residents, a proportion that is indeed worse than Ferguson.
Not long after, Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff, the long-serving top cop in town and originator of the Safe and Sober program, resigned. Local media reported that the USA Today data had played a role in his departure.  Again, Councilman Schapira spoke out, saying "I'm excited to see what a new chief can do in terms of building morale in the department and building a culture ...that's a positive one for the city and building really strong relationships in the community."

When speaking before the city's Human Relations Commission, Chief Ryff and Director Brenda Buren justified the data by saying, essentially, that it showed that police nationwide are racist and that Tempe PD may only be targeting blacks who drive through the city. Again, not much of a defense. If you have to indict your entire profession, you've lost the argument. Tempe historically was a "sundown town," a city where after sunset African-Americans and other people of color were strongly encouraged to get out of town. Tempe PD's assertion that they target out of towners lines up with this disgraceful tradition.

This is all highly relevant to the city's proposal to fund its clean elections program with speeding tickets. After all, TPD's documented racism, acknowledged by the city, will obviously effect the way it enforces speeding tickets. The truth is, not everyone catches TPD's attention equally, and as a result, these fees, tacked onto speeding tickets, will disproportionately come from people of color, particularly Tempe's black population and any African-Americans passing through or visiting Tempe.

The city seems bent on projecting a progressive attitude lately, with its recent changes to its discrimination law. But piggy-backing your election "reforms" on the backs of the Valley's non-white population, collected through a police department with well-documented and officially acknowledged racism, hardly seems in line with this objective.

Councilwoman Kuby says it's not a tax.

Further, given the income disparities between blacks and whites, we can reasonably  extrapolate that the poor in particular will also be disproportionately affected by these fees. And it just so happens that African-Americans and the poor are also the most likely to have been deliberately excluded from the electoral system through just the kind of racially-biased policing that Tempe engages in.

And the poor are the most likely to see little value in participating in formal politics, a position city council clearly must have some sympathy for, given that they themselves are about as enfranchised as it gets and yet at the root of this reform is city councilors claims that even they are helpless before wealthy developers.

"For a city that distinguished itself recently for arresting blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, you'd think Tempe would be loathe to court another comparison to a city emblematic of systemic racism."

In a recent Twitter exchange with Down and Drought, Councilwoman Kuby seemed averse to calling this a tax, but the fact remains that it's a compulsory contribution, administered by a racist police force, taken from those least likely to protest it. It's an easy fee to assess, passing the buck onto people who can't afford it, and for whom the disruption of arrest that would come with non-payment would be the most crippling. After all, not paying a traffic ticket can land you in jail and when you're broke even a few dollars can make a big difference.

Kuby's error seems mostly centered on a desire to accomplish what she thinks is a larger good. But this still doesn't excuse ignoring the details of how it will be implemented and who will be implementing it.

Schapira's backing of the new fee is even more troubling, indicating a peculiar selectivity when it comes to TPD's racism. While he was clear in his June 9th Arizona Republic editorial about TPD's racism and its impact on Safe and Sober, he was somehow unconcerned about it just a few weeks later when defending Tempe's new ordinance banning smoking with children in the car.

In that case, he was not bothered by Tempe PD's documented racism and its impact on enforcement of the law.  Quite a reversal!
"We fashioned the ordinance to treat violations as secondary offenses. Officers will only cite those pulled over for something else.

In other words, if a cop busts you for speeding and sees a lit cigarette in the ashtray and a kid sucking fumes in the back seat, you're going to owe $50."
What's the difference? How could it be that safe and sober was a racist policing operation while somehow other enforcement measures, like the smoking law or the proposed fee-financed public campaign system, are immune from such biased policing? After all, a racist police force that is documented to target blacks will certainly likewise cite them more often for secondary offenses. You can't be cited for a secondary offense if you're not stopped in the first place, and we know who TPD likes to stop. This is carceral progressivism and should be opposed. City council needs to reverse course immediately.

In our opinion, the shocking data detailing Tempe PD's disproportionate arrests rates for African-Americans ought to have the City of Tempe pulling back on all enforcement and seriously questioning its application across the board. Instead, they seem to be charging headlong into policy territory -- public funding via criminal fees -- reminiscent of Ferguson. For a city that distinguished itself recently for arresting blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, you'd think Tempe would be loathe to court another comparison to a city emblematic of systemic racism.

The bottom line is, it's not fair to make the city's most marginalized populations pay for the city council's lack of backbone. This fee is a regressive tax extracted at gunpoint by a racist police force. Further, it will raise money from groups most excluded from or most fed up with politics. If the city council can't find the wherewithal to stand up to developers and real estate interests seeking handouts, then maybe they don't deserve their jobs in the first place. Poor residents and African-Americans in Tempe are already paying out of proportion to their numbers, is it right to make them pay again?

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