Militant Journalism

Springfield, Missouri: Police further criminalize homelessness, incarcerating rather than housing

In September 2021, the police department in Springfield, Missouri, enacted a policy change that adversely affects homeless and working-class residents. They moved from a “book-and-release” or “cite-and-release” approach to one that puts more people behind bars. The laws that are most heavily enforced are trespassing laws, so-called “pedestrian safety” laws which prevent panhandling in the median of a road and anti-shoplifting laws. These are laws that are disproportionately broken by poor and homeless residents who are just trying to survive without any social safety net. Instead of being issued citations, “repeat offenders,” who have no money to pay the initial fine, are dragged off to the county jail.

Earlier this year, Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott piled on to this anti-homeless and anti-poor crackdown by creating his long-desired Fugitive Apprehension Unit, otherwise known as the warrant task force, whose job it is to track down and clear outstanding bench warrants. When Arnott initially proposed this task force in 2018, he made it clear that the plan was contingent on renegotiating a deal with the U.S. Marshals Service in order to increase the amount paid for holding federal and state inmates in the Greene County jail.

Only 48 beds in the jail are for housing municipal detainees, while the rest are for housing federal and state prisoners. Greene County even finished the construction of an additional $150-million jail with room to house more than 1,200 detainees, most of whom will be from outside Greene County. According to the 2022 Greene County budget, the second largest source of revenue for the county comes from the category of “Other Revenue,” which is “primarily federal and state inmate boarding revenue.”

New policies enacted by the Springfield, Missouri, Police Department adversely affect poor and homeless residents. Liberation photo
New policies enacted by the Springfield, Missouri, Police Department adversely affect poor and homeless residents. Liberation photo

One could make a reasonable conclusion that, given Arnott’s request for higher payment for holding prisoners and the part that revenue plays in funding city operations, the Greene County Sheriff’s Department is at least in part funding its warrant task force by using the county jail to house federal and state inmates.

Already, within just a few months of the task force’s existence, several homeless residents of Springfield have said they have experienced increased harassment. Two homeless individuals, who wish to remain anonymous, gave their story to Liberation News about mistreatment by the police. One resident, who had been told by police to leave a homeless camp where they had been living for the past year, said, “They gave us trespassing tickets and told us if we went back to get any of our stuff that we were going to go to jail.” When asked if there was anywhere in Springfield that people could go where they would not be illegal they replied, “Not really. Not anyplace that I know of anywhere.”

Another homeless resident said they had received a trespassing ticket recently: “They just wrote me up for trespassing for no reason. I wasn’t bothering nobody, breaking no law. I committed no crimes… They just pulled me up to suppress me and wrote me a trespassing ticket… They didn’t like me just [being there], they just write whatever and call the police.”

Others have reported being harassed for seemingly no other reason than for the officer to have pretext to search for an outstanding warrant. Lucy Mayfield, of Party for Socialism and Liberation-Springfield, told Liberation News of her first-hand experience with this treatment: “​​I get off work at 7:00 p.m., so in the winter it’s already dark. My car is old so the hood has a discolored spot and duct tape sealing my sunroof to keep rain from leaking into my car. One night as I was coming up a local cop came to the roundabout at the same time as me and ended up behind me as I headed home. I live off an alleyway so I turned off and the cop kept going. I got out of my car and walked to my door and nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw that same cop had looped back around and blocked my car in the drive and was watching me walk into my home. I wasn’t certain what he was doing so I waited for a while before letting my dogs out until I checked outside five minutes later and he had finally gone.” 

Mayfield assumed that the officer in question had profiled her older vehicle, assumed that the chance of a bench warrant was high and decided to run her license plates through the system. There’s also a high chance that, given the pattern of other behavior and stated intentions of the police department, Mayfield is not the only person being profiled in this way.

Over the weekend of April 10, members of PSL also witnessed an elderly homeless man — doing nothing but walking down the sidewalk — who was stopped by two police cruisers, followed by a third after one of the officers appeared to radio for backup. A total of four uniformed officers surrounded and questioned the older man before finally releasing him. PSL members stopped to observe and film, along with other concerned members of the community, who seemed just as confused as to why this seemingly harmless old man was being questioned as though he were a wanted man, only to be released without incident.

None of these measures are particularly surprising given the logic of how policing functions under capitalism. The police exist primarily to protect and enforce private property rights. Throughout the many debates in city council meetings, one hears concern expressed for “property owners,” and the impact that the rising homeless population has on “property values.” Some concern is expressed, almost as an afterthought, for the plight of the “deserving” homeless folks, but not a word is uttered about the crime of allowing thousands of people go without shelter.

Members of PSL Springfield are planning on protesting police abuse by organizing an outdoor rally and confronting city leadership at city council meetings. To get involved, contact PSL Springfield at [email protected].

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