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Documents Show Chicago PD Secretly Using Forfeiture Funds To Buy Surveillance Equipment

By Tim Cushing | TechDirt | October 19, 2016

The Chicago Reader has put together a massive, must-read investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s secret budget. The Chicago PD has — for years now — used the spoils of its asset forfeiture program to obtain surveillance equipment like Stingrays. This discretionary spending is done off the city’s books, allowing the CPD to avoid anything that might prevent it from acquiring surveillance tech — like meddling city legislators… or the public itself.

Since 2009, the year CPD began keeping electronic records of its forfeiture accounts, the department has brought in nearly $72 million in cash and assets through civil forfeiture, keeping nearly $47 million for itself and sending on almost $18 million to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and almost $7.2 million to the Illinois State Police, according to our analysis of CPD records.

The Chicago Police Department doesn’t disclose its forfeiture income or expenditures to the public, and doesn’t account for it in its official budget. Instead, CPD’s Bureau of Organized Crime, the division tasked with drug- and gang-related investigations, oversees the forfeiture fund in what amounts to a secret budget—an off-the-books stream of income used to supplement the bureau’s public budget.

The Reader found that CPD uses civil forfeiture funds to finance many of the day-to-day operations of its narcotics unit and to secretly purchase controversial surveillance equipment without public scrutiny or City Council oversight.

It sounds like a lot of money — $72 million in civil forfeiture funds — and it is. But it’s not like this money comes from a few large busts that have seriously affected the city’s drug trade. That may be the rationale for the PD’s convictionless seizing of property and cash (just like “terrorism” is often cited when acquiring surveillance tech ultimately destined for plain vanilla law enforcement use). But in reality, the forfeiture’s rarely do anything more than financially cripple a large number of individuals who have little to anything to do with drug trafficking. The Chicago Reader reports that the median seizure in Illinois is only $530 — hardly an amount one associates with criminal empires. In fact, the normal cash seizure probably sounds more like the following than a breathtaking dismantling of a local drug-running crew.

Ellie Mae Swansey, a 72-year-old retiree living on a fixed income, had her 2001 PT Cruiser seized two years ago when Chicago police arrested her son for drug manufacturing. The costs of simply beginning the long, circuitous, extremely-frustrating battle to reclaim her vehicle were prohibitive.

In order to have a chance at getting their property returned, claimants must put down a bond toward their asset when first submitting the official paperwork. This means that Swansey had to pay $140 (10 percent of her car’s value) just to start the process. Then, to appear in court, she had to pay an additional $177 fee.

To Swansey, who lives on a $655-per-month social security check, these costs are substantial. Successful claimants will have 90 percent of their bond returned; unsuccessful claimants get nothing back.

The extensive investigation, compiled from dozens of FOIA requests*, notes that 90% of the seized funds spent by the CPD went to expected, above-board expenses: vehicles, cellphones, etc. But the rest of it went other places, obscured by redactions and withheld documents. Payments to cellphone forensics companies like CellBrite were uncovered, as were purchases of a license plate reader installed near the CPD’s infamous Homan Square detention center black site, and $417,000-worth of cell tower spoofers.

The Chicago PD will continue to roll over retirees like Swansey because the laws governing forfeiture in Illinois have completely corrupted the incentives. It’s not about law enforcement or crime prevention. It’s about autonomy, power, and a steady flow of spendable cash.

When a government agency is allowed to handle the forfeiture proceeds it brings in—as is the case with both CPD and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office—it controls both “the sword and the purse,” like an army that is also its own taxing authority. This is according to Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, which seeks to reform civil asset forfeiture laws across the country.

* More on how the Chicago Reader managed to get its hands on this stash of documents.

October 20, 2016 - Posted by | Corruption, Deception, Timeless or most popular | ,

1 Comment »

  1. “The Chicago Police Department doesn’t disclose its forfeiture income or expenditures to the public, and doesn’t account for it in its official budget”.
    Gee, it’s no wonder that the average American is so angry at what has happened to them over recent years. The government is over run with criminal behaviour, same goes for the Banksters, and now the Cops have turned into “Highwaymen”……..
    What has happened to the rule of law in the USA???

    Like

    Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 20, 2016 | Reply


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