While I have been an ardent advocate of reforming America’s draconian asset forfeiture laws since I first wrote on the subject in August 2000, it wasn’t until last year that I realized that others were interested in the subject as well, and that our collective agency might be of value in catalyzing reform.
Last May, the Columbia Tribune obtained and posted a of a SWAT team brutally overrunning a house in Columbia, murdering the dogs and manhandling the occupants on the basis of a marijuana search warrant. In the publicity surrounding the video’s release and the protests that followed, I was able to bring attention back to the perverse incentive structures facing the Columbia Police Department, and particular their SWAT team, who engage in a vicious cycle of raid, plunder, repeat.
Since then, I am pleased to report that forfeiture reforms again have taken up the torch, calling for transparency, audits, and reform. Although the Columbia Tribune has yet to even mention asset forfeiture as a topic (despite editor Jim Robertson’s assurance to me in an August 2010 conversation that the Tribune would devote a reporter to the topic), other publications have begun to take note. This past week, the Columbia Heart Beat began reporting on the latest effort to request transparency from the city government over how its asset forfeiture funds were used:
How to use monies forfeited during criminal investigations appears on the Columbia City Council’s Monday agenda and has been the subject of an ongoing battle between a Kansas City-based asset forfeiture reform group, the Columbia Police Department (CPD), and Second Ward City Council representative Jason Thornhill.
A Sunshine Law request from Americans for Forfeiture Reform executive director Eapen Thampy late last month for “all records of the creation, activity, and updating of the Facebook page titled Columbia Missouri Police Department” is the latest development in the dustup, which started over what else — a Facebook page.
No Council for Old Men
Thampy’s forfeiture reform group — part of a larger liberty advocacy movement that has opposed downtown surveillance cameras, supported First Ward City Council candidate Mitch Richards, and recently scolded his opponent, First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt – has been defending a poll question on the CPD Facebook page asking viewers what they thought the police department should feature on social media.
A second, Columbia-based liberty advocacy group, Keep Columbia Free, posted the option: “An accounting of asset forfeiture funds,” which went on to become the #1 most requested CPD Facebook feature.
But CPD public information officer Sergeant Jill Wieneke removed the option on April 29, sparking an outcry that has lasted for a month.
The forfeiture fund option “was erased without comment,” Thampy emailed the Columbia City Council and reporters from the Columbia Daily Tribune and this publication. ”To my knowledge, no one used profanity or said anything inappropriate, and asking CPD for an accounting of asset forfeiture funds is not unreasonable. We understand CPD has their own vision about their outreach efforts. However, this vision should not stand in the way of showing respect to us humble taxpayers when we request transparency in government.”
A few days later, on May 2, Thornhill disagreed.
“I don’t see Facebook as the appropriate channel for that sort of request, and suspect the CPD didn’t intend it for that purpose,” Thornhill emailed Thampy. “I would encourage you and/or your group to seek out any requests for information (be it an accounting of asset forfeiture funds or anything else from the department) through regular municipal channels.”
“I urge you to consider that when municipalities engage in social media, those channels become regular municipal channels,” Thampy replied May 6.
In a nutshell: The Columbia Police Department requested citizen feedback over what kind of information they could make available to the public; when asset forfeiture transparency questions were raised, they deleted the poll and pretended nothing happened. Jill Weineke, CPD Public Information Officer and Facebook page admin, even published a press release about the Facebook page implying that the only requests the CPD received were for a listing of Columbia’s Most Wanted and public safety information.
This is disturbingly disrespectful, particularly given that there has been no reason yet given why CPD can dismiss citizen queries. Moreover, deleting requests by citizens for information allows the government to pretend they never happened. I believe this to be a violation of the right to petition for redress of grievances granted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
It is important to note that neither I nor anyone connected to this organization has yet claimed that these funds have been fraudulently misused (although this is the case in many jurisdictions that we are aware of). In Columbia, we have argued only that allowing police to directly retain forfeiture revenue from seizures not governed by substantive due process protections fundamentally warps the practices and protocols of law enforcement. Additionally, we argue that law enforcement access to (federal) forfeiture funds may be illegal, particularly in light of Missouri state law mandating that all seizure money be sent to education.
It is sad that neither the Columbia City Council nor the Columbia Police Department seem the slightest bit interest in understanding or accepting these conclusions. The City Council gets to placate a powerful interest group, the Columbia Police Officers Association. And the Columbia Chief of Police gets to buy military equipment without dipping into scarce Columbia tax revenue. Neither of these actors have an real incentive to protect taxpayers or citizens who may be on the receiving end of this militarized law enforcement, the use of which functionally guts the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty.
This is part of the political reality of asset forfeiture reform. Yet, we soldier on, defending our rights through the moral confrontation we can only provoke through our speech and Gandhian protests in the face of overwhelming force and well-funded opposition.