Since 2009, the Chicago Police Department has seized $72M worth of property from people who were not convicted of any crime, through the discredited civil forfeiture process, keeping $48M worth of the gains (the rest went to the Cook County prosecutor's office and the Illinois State Police) in an off-the-books, unreported slush fund that it used to buy secret surveillance gear.
Civil forfeiture is widely considered to be an invitation to abuse and exploitation, and Chicago's system is especially pernicious, as the police get to keep the proceeds from seizure, and do not have to disclose or account for the money.
The full scope of the program was revealed in late September by the Chicago Reader, who worked with Muckrock and the Lucy Parsons Lab to file public records requests that yielded more than 1,000 pages' worth of CPD documents.
The documents revealed that forfeiture is disproportionately used against poor people, especially people of color, who lack the legal resources to fight the theft of their property -- and who are most vulnerable to being deprived of a vehicle, or cash savings, or other property. It also revealed that the CPD used the money to buy Stingrays and other mass-surveillance gear -- by using its secret budget, the CPD was able to avoid scrutiny and oversight by the city.
In addition to surveillance gear, CPD used the money to pay officers' cell-phone bills. They collected so much cash they had to buy a bill-counting machine (purchased with money from forfeiture, of course).
This is the latest corruption scandal to hit the CPD. Last year, the Guardian revealed that the Chicago PD maintained a secret "black site" where thousands of suspects had been kidnapped and tortured (the Chicago Reader reveals that some of the surveillance equipment at that site was purchased with funds from civil forfeiture). Later, the independent Accountability Task Force called the CPD "racist, corrupt and broken." In September, the city settled a $2M lawsuit brought by whistleblowers from the force who'd been hounded and threatened and then fired for reporting a gang of CPD officers who extorted protection money from drug dealers and framed their competitors, sending them to jail for long sentences. Last week, a report revealed that 25,000 CPD officers had generated 125,000 complaints.
On November 30, 2012, Roti authorized a request for forfeiture funds to pay for wiretapping equipment made by the technology firm Pen-Link. The request included a bold-print disclaimer, similar to ones that appear on all such secret requests for forfeiture-funded technology obtained by the Reader: "These items are of a covert nature and knowledge of their existence should be kept within the Bureau of Organized Crime and limited to sworn personnel." In total, CPD has paid more than $411,000 in forfeiture money to Pen-Link since 2010.
CPD first began to use surveillance devices that track license plates and catalog the locations of passing vehicles in real-time in 2006. The technology, known as Automatic License Plate Readers, was heralded by then-CPD superintendent Phil Cline. Speaking at the City Club in September of that year, Cline boasted that in the first three months of using the readers, CPD had "checked more than 142,000 license plates."
But since then, CPD has concealed the purchases of the cameras themselves, as well its subscriptions to national databases that collect and sell the location data gleaned from private and law-enforcement ALPR systems. An April 2015 e-mail sent by a sergeant in CPD and the city's shared technology unit indicates that four of the department's ALPR units were paid for with forfeiture proceeds. A stand-alone ALPR system, also purchased with forfeiture money, was installed at Homan Square in 2010, according to a payment sheet obtained by the Reader.
[Joel Handley, Jennifer Helsby and Freddy Martinez/Chicago Reader]
(Image: Pablo Iglesias)