NYPD Says Software Built To Track Seized Property Can't Actually Do The One Thing It's Supposed To Do

from the planned-obsolescence-hurried-along-by-planned-opacity dept

It’s not like the NYPD’s earned enough trust to be given the benefit of a doubt, but it’s latest excuse as to why it can’t come up with requested data sounds about as believable as a soaking wet teen’s explanation as to why the family car is currently lying at the bottom of the backyard pool isn’t his fault.

The New York City Police Department takes in millions of dollars in cash each year as evidence, often keeping the money through a procedure called civil forfeiture. But as New York City lawmakers pressed for greater transparency into how much was being seized and from whom, a department official claimed providing that information would be nearly impossible—because querying the 4-year old computer system that tracks evidence and property for the data would “lead to system crashes.”

The system that “tracks” this information (apparently by tossing input into a pile of unsearchable bits) was considered top of the line in 2012. Sure, technology moves fast but certainly not fast enough to turn something the NYPD claimed would “revolutionize” evidence/property tracking into a hulking pile of sullen, un-queryable data four years later. As Sean Gallagher of Ars Technica points out, the system was submitted for consideration for the 2012 Computerworld Honors, which hands out awards to leaps forward in information technology.

NYPD officials, responding to city’s Public Safety Committee, explained that the top-dollar tracking system wasn’t actually a system at all.

NYPD’s Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner told the New York City Council’s Public Safety Committee that the department had no idea how much money it took in as evidence, nor did it have a way of reporting how much was seized through civil forfeiture proceedings—where property and money is taken from people suspected of involvement in a crime through a civil filing, and the individuals whom it is seized from are put in the position of proving that the property was not involved in the crime of which they were accused.

Where accountability is needed most, it almost always seems to go missing. Asset forfeiture — in multiple, mostly-nefarious forms — is a law enforcement tool seemingly handcrafted for abuse and exploitation. When the NYPD isn’t seizing cash and cars simply because Officer Smith thought he spotted a fleck of marijuana somewhere in a three-mile radius, it’s taking ownership of people’s personal belongings (phones, cash, etc.) simply because they happened to be in their pockets when they were arrested.

The NYPD’s inability to quantify its sketchy takings isn’t surprising. There’s nothing to be gained from keeping a tracking system like this in working order. The more data the NYPD can provide to overseers, FOIL-wielding citizens, and meddling defense lawyers, the more likely it is that someone will uncover abuse of the forfeiture process.

The NYPD isn’t satisfied with simply being a closed book — it’s actively engaged in removing pages. At some point, someone on the inside must have needed some information and found the tracking system unworkable. But the cost of fixing it — both in terms of the money paid to contractors and the potential “harm” done to a very profitable program — was likely considered too much of an expense to bear. So, when faced with demands for data, the NYPD excuses its lack of info production with “the database ate our homework.”

What data has been pried loose from the unwilling NYPD already shows it willingly lies to city officials about its asset forfeitures, as the Village Voice reports.

The NYPD’s testimony was also disingenuous: As part of a FOIL request filed by the Bronx Defenders, the NYPD had already compiled and released figures that show the staggering amounts that it has seized.


At the hearing, the NYPD claimed that it only legally forfeited $11,653 in currency last year — that is, gone to court and actually made a case as to why the NYPD should be taking this money.


In the accounting summaries which the Bronx Defenders submitted as part of its testimony, the NYPD reports that as of December 2013, its property clerk had almost $69 million in seized cash on hand. This amount had been carried over from previous years, showing an annual accumulation of seized cash that has reached an enormous amount. The documents also show that each month, the five property clerk’s offices across the city took in tens of thousands of dollars in cash, ultimately generating over $6 million in revenue for the department.

And where did the Bronx Defenders get its numbers? The same software the NYPD claims can’t produce these numbers.

The report that the NYPD released appears to have been generated through the same use of their database that the department now claims is technologically impossible.

At the point of the database’s inception, the NYPD claimed it would provide “cradle-to-grave” tracking of seized property. Apparently “cradle-to-grave” is about as meaningless a phrase as “unlimited data:” both terminate far sooner than their descriptors would indicate.

It may be the software can’t handle complex queries encompassing the entirety of its seizure records, but that’s not an acceptable excuse. The problem should have been caught and fixed by this point. I’m pretty sure the NYPD has some way of tracking seized assets since it seems to have few concerns about bouncing checks when spending the proceeds. But it’s sure as hell not going to turn this over to opponents of its sketchy seizure programs without a fight. So when it became apparent the database would provide next to nothing in terms of accountability, the NYPD considered that a feature, rather than a bug.

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Comments on “NYPD Says Software Built To Track Seized Property Can't Actually Do The One Thing It's Supposed To Do”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Disclaimers not necessarily exclusive

At the hearing, the NYPD claimed that it only legally forfeited $11,653 in currency last year …

In the accounting summaries which the Bronx Defenders submitted as part of its testimony, the NYPD reports that as of December 2013, its property clerk had almost $69 million in seized cash on hand.

These statements are not necessarily exclusive. NYPD is well known for its illegal tactics, so it may be that most of the money it seized was forfeited illegally, or has been placed in some sort of limbo where it is not in the possession of its rightful owners, but has not technically been declared forfeit (yet).

Ninja (profile) says:

Seems on par with how the Government works nowadays (regardless of country). Build a system that should be but not quite isn’t that can’t quite do what you need but can if operated in an specific way that most likely require a whole lot of more working hours. I’d say this article came from a Douglas Adams book if it popped out with the characters involved suppressed.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Easy to solve

Any stolen money or property that doesn’t have complete, searchable records is returned to the owner if possible, donated to the funds of the NYC public defender’s office in the case of money, or an actual charity in the case of property. If they can’t prove that they have it legally then they don’t get to keep it, simple as that.

I guarantee that if such a requirement was put into place the system would magically start working again practically overnight.

Dirkmaster (profile) says:

Re: Easy to solve

I have a better one. Until such time as a full accounting of all previous seizures has been made, they cannot seize any more. That would crash their 2017 budget for sure, and thus be ample motivation for them to fix or upgrade the system.

however, I’m betting there’s not a damn thing wrong with it. With all those inputs, it might just need some more ram. Or you limit the searches to 6 months at a time.

Anonymous Coward says:

I'm wondering

How assent forfeiture isn’t a 4th amendment violation. I mean, I know they use the fiction that they are prosecuting the property, rather than a person, and that property doesn’t have any rights to violate. (This doesn’t square with Citizens United which holds that money has free speech rights. If money has a 1st amendment right, why doesn’t it have a 4th?)

The law as it stands smacks of a sophist argument and seems that it should be illegal on it’s face.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: I'm wondering

Because drugs! All the rules go out the window when drugs are involved! That scrap of paper and the scribblings on it aren’t nearly as important as doing everything possible to stop people from even thinking about drugs, and anyone who says otherwise is clearly a criminal communist terrorist drug and seller user of the highest order!


(Really wish I could say this was entirely sarcastic instead of a deliberate poe…)

Groaker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not that hard

A 16 year old computer with 32 bit operating system and far less than 3GB could handle the report writing rather rapidly. The software for such a system would be trivial as long as the city council wasn’t demanding to know how many forfeitures were made by those who used credit cards to buy frozen pizzas in the express lane of a supermarket.

I would say that an out of the country forensic team should be brought in to find out who is stealing the money, but for some reason the NYPD has offices all over the world. Anyone, anywhere would be pressured into falsifying evidence by this reputed “7th largest army in the world” [sic].

The city council is afraid/unable to force the truth out of these criminals.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not that hard

The incredible thing is that even if a query for a full report “would crash the system”, there is this crazy thing people can do when such things crop up. You query a range of time. Then the next…

Not that i find the “technological impossibility” believable in the first place. They just have to not-even-nerd harder if it were remotely true.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Crashes

True story: I know of a moderately sized business that still has a ‘doze 95 box running their “least cost” long distance phone switch. It’s not connected to the internet or even their network, so it’s not a huge risk.

The business just doesn’t see the need to spend more money on a program that’s doing it’s job and doesn’t need any new features – yet. Next year they get VOiP, so the days are numbered.

That all said: I wonder if the NYPD has heard of “The Cloud”. I’ve a nice ansible script that will do load analysis and kick the box up to more cores or disk, and when that’s not enough, kick new VMs on the back end. Your choice of four cloud providers. Look for it on a git near you soon when I get it working cross provider. (Currently it has to stay on whichever you set it up for initially.)

Just say’n.

Skeeter says:

That troubling 'Constitution' again

A question that most-any lawyer (you would think) would have considered (long before now), is that in the paradox of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, the issue of ‘asset forfeiture’ (truly, a hearty trampling of the 4th Amendment, anyhow) brings up the question, ‘if you are deemed ‘innocent’ until found guilty, then why are your valuables, possessions, etc. confiscated anyhow? If this is being equated to ‘locking up as secure during court proceedings’, then instantly you have a situation where you are in-fact, truly being considered ‘guilty until proven innocent’, aren’t you?

It just keeps amazing me how we keep claiming we are a ‘nation of laws’, but every time I turn around, we are adamantly enforcing lies-as-laws, and then explaining our way out of our actions. Whether it is ‘nepotism trumps fair and equal implementation (Hillary can divulge state secrets in e-mails, and the DOJ looks the other way; but if you mailed a ‘classified’ document to the feds, they’d nail you with everything they have and then refuse you an attorney to boot’), or whether it is ‘innocent until proven guilty’, then locking people up and forgetting why they were arrested for weeks, we keep proving if there’s a way to be corrupt, we’ll patent it and sell it to the masses as ‘rule by law’.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: That troubling 'Constitution' again

brings up the question, ‘if you are deemed ‘innocent’ until found guilty, then why are your valuables, possessions, etc. confiscated anyhow? If this is being equated to ‘locking up as secure during court proceedings’, then instantly you have a situation where you are in-fact, truly being considered ‘guilty until proven innocent’, aren’t you?

The insanely stupid and insane argument they use is that the person isn’t being treated as guilty until proven innocent, and therefore having their rights violated, the property is, and property of course doesn’t have rights to violate. Likewise just because the person hasn’t been found guilty that doesn’t mean the property isn’t guilty, and property, unlike a person, can be assumed to be guilty until the former owner can demonstrate it’s ‘innocence’.

It’s a stupid law held up by even more brain-dead arguments, supported by spineless judges and lawmakers and those that stand to benefit from being able to grab everything not nailed down and/or on fire.

hmayle (profile) says:

Re: That troubling 'Constitution' again

A government (or nation) is only as corrupt as its’ citizens allow it to be. Bottom line.
Unfortunately citizens are more interested in who’s on Dancing With Stars or playing Pokemon Go or who’s the starting quarterback for the Cowboys this week than they are with their own government.
It’s a tyranny of the uninformed masses that unfortunately keeps the ball of corruption rolling.

hmayle (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: That troubling 'Constitution' again

“If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens elect bad men to make and administer the laws.”

My statement comes from the above quote from Noah Webster, who is often referred to as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education” – Or just another lame and ignorant dude in your opinion I guess.

Groaker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: That troubling 'Constitution' again

You think that quote is lame? It has been said by many in slightly different words. So many that it is worth exploring. The following is another good instance.

“Every country has the government it deserves.”

Who sits in the jury box? Who votes innocent for obvious criminals and murderers because they wear a badge? Who votes like sheep because their family always voted that way, or simply the reverse in angry defiance at their family? Who provided the political support for Bush43 when it was obvious from long before that war started that the criminal war was based on lies? And who continues to support these wars based on the lies of Obama? How many continue to believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq? Who bothers to read and find out what is happening? Who supports the continuing torture of POWs? Who bothers to educate themselves on the basis for so many of the despotic actions of this government? Who finds excuses for murder, rape and theft by the police when there is video evidence of same? Who called for the impeachment of the judge who ruled that it was perfectly permissible for LEOs to hack into any person’s computer, because hacking was commonplace? How many even bother to sign a petition? And so much more.

Such people make up the constituency of the government that we unfortunately have and deserve. Our government and our population demonstrate that the #mayle quote is indeed correct, and not at all “lame.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 That troubling 'Constitution' again

Yeah. And all the corruption in government and industry is the fault of those least able to do anything about it, while those who are able to do something about it try to hide and avoid accountability, bribe others to cover it up, purchase laws which give them immunity.

Oh wait, you’re referring to the election system and how the little people have total control over who is in office … hahahahahahahahahaha, tell me another joke.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Let's apply that argument elsewhere, shall we?

“Terribly sorry mister IRS man, but the system I use to keep track of profits and expenses for my small business is incapable of actually doing either. No worries though, I promise that I’ve followed every applicable law, so there’s no need to assume the worst or punish me for anything, I mean it’s not like I knew in advance that the system wouldn’t work, or could have easily upgraded it and decided not to because it benefits me to have it broken or anything.”

Anonymous Coward says:

69M > 11.6K

Another post brought up that the 4th amendment. But I think the figures are themselves evidence that the 6th is being violated.

It is more than plausibly convenient for the state, that nobody is showing up in court to defend themselves. Whereas defendants choose not to defend their rights to property, there is cause, and that cause should be investigated.

Sandbagging the accused is illegal under the 6th amendment.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is because ‘forfeited’ money goes directly into NYPD Officers private bank accounts.

The sooner this murderous gang of thieves claiming to be a police department is shut down and investigated for the dozens of murders, the theft of public property (1/5 of all NYPD officers have been accused of burglary whilst on duty), shooting random black people for fun (They even have a game similiar to billiards where one officer beats and/or shoots someone in white, then red or black etc).

Bill Poser (profile) says:

nypd seizure database

If the problem is that the system doesn’t support complex queries, they can simply release the entire data set in some standard form and let other people load it into their more capable query systems. It is hard to imagine that they don’t have such an export capability, and as far as I can see there is nothing confidential about such data, so they would need to do little or no redaction.

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