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.