Since 2009, the Chicago Police Department has acquired millions of dollars worth of property seized from Chicago residents through civil asset forfeiture.
According to a recent Chicago Reader investigation, the department isn’t required to disclose how much money they make, or how they use it.
Reporter Joel Handley said he became interested in civil asset forfeiture after meeting Willie Mae Swansey, who went to court to try and get her car back after Chicago police confiscated it while arresting her son.
Handley spoke to WBEZ’s Melba Lara on Thursday:
What exactly is civil forfeiture?
Civil forfeiture is a process in which police and prosecutors can take the money, cars, houses and other assets that they seize during the course of an investigation, and try to keep it permanently for their own use. The money goes back to the police department, to the prosecutor’s office, to the Illinois state police and it is up to them entirely how they use this money.
How is the money used?
The vast majority of this money is used to fund the day to day operations of the war on drugs, as the Chicago Police Department does it. They use it to fund (things like) the cell phone bills of undercover police officers (and) the rental cars that undercover police officers and administrators use within this bureau.
A small portion is used by the Chicago Police Department to fund the purchase of high tech surveillance equipment that they do not disclose in their public budget. These are things like very controversial pieces of equipment that target and track cell phone use. This goes to automatic license plate readers which tag and track the locations of every car that passes by.
Part of the way that they have successfully kept these under wraps is by using the civil forfeiture money to buy them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.