The Spokane City Council would have more authority over how the police department spends money officers seize from suspected criminals under a new ordinance up for a vote Monday night.
“This would, in a sense, be a beacon to other cities, to say this is how you do it,” said City Councilman Breean Beggs, the lead sponsor of the new law.
Beggs said the measure would be the first-of-its-kind and a way to bring government transparency at the local level to a system that has earned public scrutiny in recent years as a potential goldmine for law enforcement that can unfairly target the poor.
Spokane Police Maj. Eric Olsen, who oversees investigations and administration for the department, said the practice acted as a deterrent.
“Asset forfeiture is a huge tool to fight crime, because it takes the profit incentive out of crime, and it takes their instrumentalities to commit crime,” Olsen said.
Seized assets also allow the department to pay for officer training and equipment that wouldn’t otherwise be available, he said.
According to internal police data, the department netted about $170,000 annually from local asset forfeiture between 2012 and 2015.
The ordinance, which calls for detailed documentation on all assets seized by the department and specific budget requests for council approval before cash can be spent, codifies some of the changes to the asset forfeiture policy that were instituted when Spokane police established the Civil Enforcement Unit in 2014, Olsen said.
“One of the first things we did, was go in and revise our policy,” said Olsen, who oversaw creation of the unit.
Under former Police Chief Frank Straub, the department’s seizure practices were criticized from within by several members of the command staff who said the unit had been created to raise revenue. Beggs said his intent with the new ordinance was not to insinuate bad behavior by the department, but to codify the reforms implemented to bring more transparency to how money from the program is spent.
“We want to drive the reforms that they had made into permanent laws, so that a new chief doesn’t mean we take a step backwards,” Beggs said.
Federal guidelines restrict agencies from setting up quotas or forecasting how much money will be brought in through forfeitures, which would jeopardize Spokane’s participation in the Equitable Sharing program established by the Department of Justice in the 1980s. Under that program, federal and local agencies share the assets seized in joint operations.
The Department of Justice reports the Spokane Police Department received an average of about $68,000 in federal equitable sharing dollars for the five-year period between 2012 and 2016, boosted largely by the $212,592 the department received in 2013. The department assisted in the break-up of a multistate drug ring that year that included the seizure of $28.1 million.
State law also requires agencies to use money seized in felony-level drug and prostitution crimes on “expanding and improving law enforcement activity.”
Beggs’ ordinance prohibits the City Council from spending forfeited assets in violation of state or federal laws. But Olsen said it’s still unclear if the proposal could be construed to “pre-commit” money seized through the program to a specific purpose, which could “raise red flags.” The law cites “youth programs” and “community courts” as endeavors that expand and improve law enforcement. That could give the appearance money is being earmarked for those programs, Olsen said.
“I’m hoping there’s a good conversation at the next City Council meeting,” Olsen said. “There are some areas that still cause us concern, that may potentially put us in conflict with those state and federal regulations.”
Beggs said the law highlights those programs as potential recipients of seized funds. A dispute over how to spend seized funds was one of several reasons former police employee Carly Cortright gave as evidence of the difficulty working for Straub in her interview with investigator Kris Cappel following the chief’s ouster.
“This is similar to what we do with state grants,” Beggs said. The council will not require the department to spend the money on youth programs or community courts, but they will need approval for any spending of seized funds.
The only opposition to the bill that Beggs said he’s heard from the council is from Mike Fagan, who would prefer the city follow the lead of some state legislators who believe a criminal conviction should be required before police can seize property. Fagan did not return a call for comment Friday.
The city law also establishes a six-month timeframe for police to sell off an asset and requires annual audits of the department’s asset forfeiture program. The Washington State Auditor’s Office already reports on the program once a year.
The City Council will consider the measure at their regularly scheduled meeting 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall.