ST. LOUIS (CNN) — It’s not just about police killing black men. It’s deeper than that.
Khalif Rainey stares intensely across the police tape marking the burnt out parts of the neighborhood he loves and represents.
Rainey is an Alderman for the 7th district in Milwaukee, which includes the Sherman Park neighborhood. It became the scene of protests and then violent clashes after police shot and killed Sylville Smith who is black and police say was armed.
“I see devastation,” Rainey says. “I see something I hope we never see again.”
Rainey laments what he sees, but also understands how it happened. He says the destructive reaction by some in the predominantly black neighborhood was not about the police shooting. It is much deeper than that.
One of the many triggers for the unrest is something much more mundane: the targeting and ticketing practices of police.
“Everyone felt it,” Rainey says of the simmering tension. “Everyone knew that it was inevitable.”
But some residents in Milwaukee don’t understand the explosion of anger after a case like this, one where police say they have evidence the man pointed a gun at police.
‘Oh lord,’ it’s the cops
Tawana Bridges has lived in Milwaukee since the 1970’s. She is a single mother of five and having a heck of a time trying to make ends meet. She says just getting to and from her job every day is nerve wrecking, always looking over her shoulder wondering when the police are going to pull her over.
“Every day I see the police and I’m like ‘Oh lord, not today,'” Bridges says.
Bridges says her ticketing nightmare began with a broken taillight. It came with a fine. Not only was she unable to afford to get her taillight fixed immediately, but she couldn’t pay the fine, which just kept growing.
“Sometimes I don’t have the extra $50 that they need me to send in. But if I don’t send it then there’s a warrant out for my arrest,” Bridges says. “They will suspend my license so either way it goes. I’m in a lose-lose situation.”
She is not alone.
A 2011 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that while blacks make up 19% of registered drivers in Milwaukee County, they received 69% of license suspensions for failing to pay fines. That far outweighs all other ethnicities. African-Americans point to numbers like these to show they are being targeted, which is ruining relations and creating more tension between the black community and police.
“Some of my clients are afraid to call the police for help in an emergency because they have a warrant for unpaid tickets,” says Molly Gena, an attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin. “Imagine that for a moment.”
The group represents those unable to pay for an attorney. Gena says what she is witnessing every day is black and poor residents bearing the brunt of the city’s ticketing practices.
“My clients, so many of them lose their license for poverty-related reasons,” Gena said.
Others say if you’re breaking the law, there’s no excuse. There have to be consequences and tickets can’t be withheld out of concern a resident cannot pay it.
However, there is proof police ticketing practices do place a role in simmering tensions between African-American communities and police, according to the Department of Justice.
Remember Ferguson, Missouri?
The ticketing and fining practices of the police and courts were what the Department of Justice pointed out as major factors for creating the powder keg that exploded after the police killing of Michael Brown.
While the DOJ did not find reason to charge the officer for the shooting death of Brown, it did find fault with the police department and city for the disproportionate ticketing and fining of black residents.
“The city relies on the police force to serve, essentially, as a collection agency for the municipal court rather than a law enforcement entity,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2015 when the DOJ investigation of Ferguson was released.
After a consent decree and the threat of a lawsuit, Ferguson has changed its ways. The municipal court now makes just a fraction of what it used to make from fines.
In 2014, the city’s municipal revenues stood at $2.7 million. Halfway through fiscal year 2016 that number has dropped to $250,000, according to the city. Even if the amount doubles by the end of the year, it is still a fraction of what the courts made two years ago.
Cities creating ‘debtor’s prisons?’
A new class action lawsuit accuses 13 cities surrounding Ferguson of the same practice: policing for profit on the backs of black and poor people.
Attorneys for non-profit organization ArchCity Defenders, which filed the suit, call what is happening the equivalent of a debtor’s prison. Traffic violations are not punishable with jail time, yet if fines aren’t paid, a warrant can be issued for an arrest.
ArchCity Defenders attorney Thomas Harvey says at one point in 2015 those 13 cities combined to an issue an average of one warrant for every resident of those cities.
“It’s outrageous and obviously done to increase the city’s revenue,” Harvey says.
The group claims a total of nearly $77 million was collected over a five-year period by the 13 cities from municipal court fines, fees and surcharges in an area with a population of less than 50,000 people.
“You’re essentially asking somebody ‘How much money do you have to buy your freedom?” Harvey says.
The cities have balked at the debtor’s prison accusation.
“Driving is a privilege not a right,” Brian Jackson, mayor of Beverly Hills, Missouri says. His city is named in the lawsuit.
The African-American mayor says as a young man he received a traffic ticket from police and found himself in jail. He said it taught him a lesson that he never forgot.
“Be responsible. Don’t break the law and you won’t get a fine,” Jackson says.
None of the other mayors for the cities being sued returned CNN requests for comments. But, Pat Kelly, who represents an association of municipalities in the St. Louis area, commented on behalf of all 13 accused in the lawsuit.
“It’s not the policeman’s fault for enforcing the law,” Kelly says.
While he agrees the system should be scrutinized, Kelly says many of the problems could be solved if residents would simply show up to court and try to work out a plan.
“You know, these are the laws of the state that they’re enforcing,” Kelly says. “Those warrants … are built into the law to try to get people to come to court.”
Milwaukee Alderman Rainey is watching what is happening in Missouri and calling for change in his city. He warns without it, the eruption of anger will reappear.
But Rainey says the ticketing issue is just one piece of the puzzle.
Statistics show his city is one of the most segregated in the nation. And by all measures the racial disparities are stark. Joblessness and despair reign in the black community.
Wisconsin also has another dubious reputation. By percentage, that state imprisons more African-American men than any other in America, at a rate of more than double the national average, according to the study, which cites 2010 U.S. Census data.
Alderman Rainey says the recent events have shed light on some of the serious issues that need not just conversation but action to make change.
“If you want to help, call me. We have to take action now.”
CNN’s Jason Kravarik contributed to this report.