This story is part of a collaborative reporting initiative supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. See all the stories at taken.pulitzercenter.org.
A sniper rifle, night vision goggles, confidential source payments, dog food and out of state conferences - these are some of the items that law enforcement agencies in Illinois have spent from money and property seized from citizens who may never have been charged with a crime.
Under state and federal laws known as civil asset forfeiture, police departments may seize property - such as cars and cash - they believe is used in criminal activity. The owners of the property may never themselves be charged with a crime, and getting property back could take years and involve costly attorney fees.
The funds then can be used for expenditures to supplement the law enforcement agencies’ budgets.
The seizures and spending continue even after a new law intended to reform the Seizure and Forfeiture Reporting Act was passed in 2017. New state laws passed in recent years across the nation have aimed to lessen the burden on property owners as well as make seizure activity more transparent. Yet, critics claim the laws don’t go far enough.
While there is now information on how much is seized, there is been no central data repository in the state for expenditures, and record-keeping by Illinois law enforcement agencies is inconsistent and incomplete.
But using the Freedom of Information Act laws, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and CU-Citizen.Access.org, both nonprofit newsrooms, collected data from five law enforcement agencies to provide a partial picture of the expenditures. The agencies are the Champaign Police Department, Urbana Police Department, University of Illinois Police, Decatur Police Department and Cook County Sheriff’s Department.
In some cases, the funds from seizures are substantial, especially in small urban cities in central Illinois.
Under state law, the Department of State Police is to maintain and aggregate civil asset forfeitures and expenditures in a public database on their official website.
Trooper Mindy Carroll of Illinois State Police said the first annual report from the Seizure and Forfeiture Reporting Act would be due shortly after February 28, 2020. "Per statute, the report shall include, at a minimum, the amount of funds and other property distributed to the law enforcement agency by the Department of State Police, the amount of funds expended by the law enforcement agency, and the category of expenditure," Carroll said.
Over the past 10 years, police departments have used their civil asset funds in various ways.
All the law enforcement agencies surveyed included money for K-9 units, which are often used in drug enforcement programs. The other most frequent expenses were purchases of cell phones and payment of monthly bills.
But after those expenditures, spending varied widely.
The Champaign Police Department, for example, which took in at least $1.17 million in forfeiture funds between 2014 and mid-2019, spent at least $7,000 at restaurants such as Hooters, Arby’s and In-N-Out Burgers and utility/internet usage charges from July 2017 to August 2018.
In addition, Champaign used the civil asset funds to make payments to confidential sources, including iTV3 and an IHOP in Glen Carbon, IL.
The payments are typically made for information or the purchase of evidence, but the data provided in response to the Freedom of Information requests was not specific on what exactly was bought.
Assistant to the Police Chief for Community Services Thomas Yelich said in an email in February, "The Champaign Police Department feels this is a reasonable use of these funds and acceptable under the asset forfeiture guidelines.”
Altogether, Champaign spent at least $134,513 in expenditures from civil asset funds between 2017 and 2018. And Champaign has spent at least $1.4 million in civil asset expenditures since 2014. The department operated on an annual budget of around $24 million during these time periods.
“Champaign Police assesses current and future needs of the department and then determines how the asset forfeiture expenditures are to be appropriately used,” Yelich said.
Urbana Police Department, which took in at least $445,000 between 2010 and 2017, spent $6,000 on night vision technology and $14,500 in surveillance equipment. Urbana has spent significantly less than Champaign from civil asset accounts, with a total of $304,666 since 2010.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also tracks civil asset expenditures from its police department. It took in at least $257,000 between 2010 and 2017, and have spent $153,581 in expenditures from civil asset accounts since 2009. Purchases include at least $63,000 in vehicles and repairs, almost 40 percent of their total, and $5,000 in tracking equipment such as night vision and GPS technology.
Several police officers are members of various local and federal task forces that focus on drug trafficking and substance abuse, including prevention and enforcement, said Patrick Wade, spokesman for the University police department.
“As members of those task forces, we are expected to contribute our share of resources and equipment so that we can participate in anti-drug activities on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community,” Wade said. “In particular, the vehicles required for this work and our narcotics canine unit are large expenses.”
Decatur Police Department ranked number five in the top 10 among law enforcement agencies with the most seized funds in Illinois according to state documents. It took in at least $2.25 million between 2010 and 2018. Among its expenditures were $100,000 on firearms and ammunition and $9,700 in gas mask filters, according to city documents. Altogether, the agency spent $2,575,102 in expenditures from civil asset accounts between 2015 and 2019.
Decatur documents showed that it makes mostly "Drug-Related Expenses", including over $430,000 in vehicle purchases and repairs. Over $200,000 in "State Operating Expenses" were spent, including things like storage, headsets, cell phones and leasing a pole barn. Decatur's expenditures also included Ghillie suits, a camouflaged outfit worn by hunters, soldiers or snipers, for $342.95 and at least $16,000 in sniper rifle equipment.
Cook County ranks as the highest county with the most seized funds according to state documents, and took in at least $100 million in forfeitures between 2010 and 2018 across all agencies. The county contains 130 law enforcement agencies according to city documents. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office spent at least $21 million from civil asset accounts between 2014 and mid-2019.
That agency splits their forfeiture accounts between two reporting programs: State Forfeiture Reporting for police department and narcotics payroll expenditures and Equitable Sharing for DEA accounts and professional association expenditures. Its top expenditures for State Forfeiture accounts include more than $1 million in helicopter repairs and $1.12 million in security expenses, such as X-Rays and metal detectors. $290,000 was also spent on K-9 unit expenses.
Pamela Dempsey and Claire Hettinger also contributed to this report. All records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Full statement from the University of Illinois police department
These expenditures are focused on education, awareness, prevention and enforcement related to substance abuse and drug trafficking in our community. The University of Illinois Police Department has several officers who are members of local and federal task forces charged with these duties. As members of those task forces, we are expected to contribute our share of resources and equipment so that we can participate in anti-drug activities on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community. In particular, the vehicles required for this work and our narcotics canine unit are large expenses.
One of our goals is to focus on the substances that are associated with violence – particularly gun violence in our community. We do this through identifying and holding accountable the people who are supplying and funneling harmful substances into neighborhoods, where they create addiction issues and violent conflict. We have also participated in campuswide awareness campaigns to prevent and reduce the use of club drugs and opioids among our student body. These initiatives are valuable to the wellbeing of our community, but they do require funding.-Patrick Wade, spokesman for University of Illinois police department