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 request (more on than in a bit), 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.
And for what? What has been the end result of this massive amount of supposedly drug-focused seizures and spending?
[T]he prices of many drugs have decreased and purity has increased since the [drug] war began.
The second part of this story is just as interesting. It details how the Chicago Reader managed to get its hands on this stash of documents. It began with a FOIA request for Stingray documents from the Chicago PD. In between the redactions, the PD accidentally gave up its quasi-"black budget" account numbers.
On October 13, 2014, Christopher Kennedy, from CPD's Gang Investigations Division, wrote to Nicholas Roti, then chief of the department's Bureau of Organized Crime:
"Because this equipment will be used for [REDACTED] investigations in to [sic] [word missing] [I] recommend that it be paid for with both 1505 and 1505ML funds in equal amounts," he wrote.
Several requests later, Lucy Parson Lab (government transparency activists) and the Chicago Reader confirmed that these accounts were tied to asset forfeiture. Moving on from there, however, required some outside assistance. The Reader was going to be asking for a lot of documents and it would have been easy for the Chicago PD to deny such a request from a single entity as "unduly burdensome."
But several public records requesters, each using their own name? Not as easy.
To get over this hurdle, Lucy Parsons Labs launched a collaboration with MuckRock, a FOIA and transparency website, asking ordinary users to send FOIA requests on our behalf.
Lucy Parsons Labs drafted a sample FOIA request for users to download and submit. We also managed the responses from CPD—MuckRock's platform automatically followed up with CPD when the department was late responding to a request. Once checks came back from CPD, Lucy Parsons members collected the data in a centralized location and classified each purchase as being either part of routine police activities or as part of broader surveillance efforts. Eleven of our 13 community requesters used the MuckRock FOIA platform to submit and manage their requests.
This is how you beat a system predisposed to telling you "no." A "burdensome" request split 20 ways is no longer a burden. Sure, the Chicago PD might have experienced a bit more of a crunch fulfilling these, but it couldn't use the law to deny releasing documents it almost certainly would have preferred to keep under wraps.