Beverly Hills, Missouri

I’ve been moving away from op-ed lately to concentrate more on original feature reporting. My latest for the Guardian is on the impoverished town of Beverly Hills, Missouri, which has a population of under 600 but whose police wrote over 3800 tickets last year:

A far cry from its California counterpart, Beverly Hills, Missouri, is a 10-minute drive from Ferguson, the city synonymous with racial strife. At first glance, Beverly Hills is one of many St Louis suburbs that makes Ferguson seem comparatively fair and functional.

Less than 600 people live in Beverly Hills, which is 0.09 square miles. Blink and you miss it, unless you are pulled over by one of their 13 police officers – that is, one for each of its 13 blocks – and become incorporated into its system of human currency. In 2013, the town’s municipal court generated $221,164 (or $387 for each of its residents), with much of the fees coming from ticketing non-residents.

Like much of the surrounding area of St Louis’s North County, Beverly Hills feels like suburbia in free fall. The children of Beverly Hills are tied to the failing Normandy school system, which in 2014 was denied accreditation for poor performance. The shops of Beverly Hills have been replaced by predatory loan centers, with a title loan outlet, a payday loan outlet, and two rent-to-own furniture outlets in the plaza across from the police station. The main shopping center, festooned with fading pictures of palm trees, is for lease, and includes a grocery store offering on-the-spot check cashing. The homes of Beverly Hills fell in value following the 2008 housing crash, which disproportionately affected St Louis’s majority black suburbs. Per capita, income stands at $14,411.

In March, the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report highlighted traffic ticket schemes as a racist means of boosting small town revenue. In July 2012, the town held a community day event. “Got warrants from Beverly Hills?” the flyer asked. “Come join us at Beverly Hills Amnesty Day.” There, residents could watch a car show, enter a raffle, and “set a new court date for a non-refundable fee of $30”.

Beverly Hills is one of many tiny St Louis County towns whose right to existence has come into question after the Ferguson fallout. Civic groups like Better Together STL have called to incorporate St Louis’s 90 municipalities into a larger whole, and national news organizations have singled out the town as an example of aggressive policing.

But there is more to Beverly Hills than rapacious officials and suffering citizens. In fact, to hear city officials tell it, that is not the story at all.

Read the full story, Down and out in Beverly Hills, Missouri, at the Guardian

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