Anna Ortiz came home on May 16 to find her apartment torn apart, and her $2,651 in rent money was missing. The culprit? The New York Police Department.
Earlier that day, the NYPD stormed into the apartment to arrest one of her son’s friends. Afterwards, they began searching the rest of the apartment. “It was ransacked,” Anna told The Village Voice. “They destroyed that apartment.”
Without her cash for rent, Anna now faces eviction. Months later, she is still trying to navigate the city’s complex bureaucratic network to retrieve her money.
Anna’s story is not unusual. To better shine a light on the NYPD’s asset forfeiture program, the Bronx Defenders filed a lawsuit against the Department last week for refusing to turn over requested documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. After trying to obtain public records for two years, the Bronx Defenders have only received two accounting summaries and a copy of the NYPD patrol guide, despite requesting 40 documents. But the documents already turned over revealed that the NYPD may be sitting on millions of dollars.
According to the Bronx Defenders:
The accounting summaries show that in 2013 the NYPD reported over $6 million in revenue from seized cash, civil forfeiture revenue, and property sold at auction. The documents also show that the NYPD had a balance of over $68 million in seized currency in any given month in 2013.
Statewide, from 1997 to 2013, law enforcement agencies in New York collected $367 million in forfeiture proceeds under state law, according to the Institute for Justice’s report Policing for Profit.
Unfortunately, the lack of transparency over basic forfeiture data is prevalent nationwide. At least a dozen states lack any kind of requirement for forfeiture recordkeeping. In the other states, data can be spotty and scarce. Finding unpublished reports and unreported data requires public record requests, like those conducted by the Bronx Defenders. Those requests can be daunting because the public has to know whom to contact and what—specifically—to look for. Even with that knowledge, agencies might deny requests deemed overly broad. Furthermore, requests can costs hundreds or thousands of dollars to obtain and may take months or even years to fulfill.
Fortunately, 10 states have recently enacted laws to improve reporting on seizure and forfeiture activity. Let’s hope the Bronx Defenders can expose policing for profit in America’s largest police force.