A recent Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general’s audit of the Lansing, Michigan, police department questioned $15,624 in expenditures from 2009 to 2012.
The money wound up in Lansing by way of the DOJ’s equitable sharing program, a cooperative civil forfeiture program designed “to enhance cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies through the sharing of proceeds resulting from federal forfeitures.”
It works like this: If state or local law enforcement determines that someone’s property can be forfeited under federal law, it can hand over the case to the DOJ. In return, that state or local agency receives up to 80 percent of the revenue generated from any resulting forfeiture. It’s a tidy arrangement that sometimes nets the originating agency far more money than it could get under its own state’s laws—encouraging local law enforcement officials to bypass any inconvenient state laws designed to break the link between police work and profit.
Strict rules are in place about how equitable sharing money can be spent, and the Lansing PD broke them. Most notably, $12,563 was used to reimburse officers for the department’s standard uniform allowance. Ordinarily, this practice is permissible, except in this case, instead of collecting receipts for verified uniform purchases and reimbursing officers for only those purchases, officials prorated the money back into employee paychecks. No documentation of any authorized uniform purchases was ever discovered. In essence, the Lansing PD had no way of knowing if officers were actually buying uniforms or using the money in other ways.
Another violation found in the report: $3,061 of federal money went to overtime pay for a civilian employee on its special operations unit. According to the DOJ’s equitable sharing guide, these funds may be used only to pay overtime to sworn, uniformed law enforcement officials, not civilian employees.
Numerous accounting and reporting violations also bubbled to the surface during the audit. Most egregiously, the Lansing PD failed to follow a principal DOJ guideline that states that “DOJ equitable sharing funds must be accounted for separately from any other funds.” This means that the Lansing PD put the federal money and other money into one pot, making it impossible to audit and even more impossible to tell whether the correct amount of money was present at any given time.
It also turns out that between 2009 and 2011, the Lansing PD provided incorrect and incomplete transaction records. To add insult to injury, the audit revealed that the Lansing PD used federal equitable sharing funds to replace, rather than supplement, state and local money in their budget. In other words, Lansing was actually relying on forfeiture funds for part of its regular budget, which creates a very strong incentive for police officers to seize as much property as possible. This potentially leaves innocent property owners at risk for being targeted by overzealous law enforcement.
The Lansing PD has since resolved these issues, but one has to ask: How was this allowed to continue for so long? And where else is this happening right now?
James Hampson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.