Institute for Justice · April 5, 2016

On March 31, just a few days after the U.S. Department of Justice resumed the federal equitable sharing program, its Office of the Inspector General released an audit of the Willow Springs Police Department over its use of equitable sharing funds.

In the small Illinois town of Willow Springs, a Chicago suburb with a population of only 5,524, the local PD used a total of $966,625 from this program to purchase things such as new pursuit vehicles, a sports car, motorcycles, and a police boat, all of which seemed to be scarcely used.

Equitable sharing is the federal program that allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with federal authorities to seize and forfeit property under federal law. The local agencies that engage in the practice of equitable sharing can then receive up to 80 percent of the forfeited proceeds, creating an incentive for police departments to continue seizing.

The Willow Springs PD audit found, among other things, that:

“The Willow Springs PD expended equitable sharing funds on vehicles and a boat that have been utilized only minimally, calling into question their necessity and contribution to enhancing law enforcement operations.”

The Willow Springs PD’s response to the audit attempted to justify several of the questioned expenses. Specifically, the PD claimed:  several of the motorcycles it had purchased were no longer in use due to personnel retirement and resignations; a $24,189 used Chevy Camaro it had purchased was not actually a pursuit vehicle but a “traffic car” for discrete use in covert operations (though the audit notes that the Willow Springs Police Chief initially described it as a pursuit vehicle); and two Taurus sedans it had purchased were no longer in use for the following reason:

“The Taurus sedans, WS1 and WS2 were purchased and driven by officers with a smaller stature and both vehicles were taken out of service due being driven at excessive speeds.”

The response added:

“WS1 and WS2 are base model police squad cars. The vehicles are not designed to accommodate larger officers and thus limit who can operate.”

The audit also mentions the Willow Springs PD using a grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to purchase a 26-foot boat that cost a total of $303,635. However, it notes that the grant was only for $223,766, so the Willow Springs PD used $83,039 in equitable sharing funds to pay for the remaining cost of the boat. The audit questions this expense for the following reasons:

“Current Willow Springs PD officials stated that they believed the boat had only been used two or three times for two to three missions, but that they were not aware of the department maintaining a usage log to confirm how often the boat had been used. Because there was no support to show the use of the boat and claims that it was only used a couple of times, we are questioning the $83,039 in equitable sharing funds used to pay the remaining costs associated with the boat purchase.”

The Willow Springs PD did concede in their response that:

“The Boat was found to be impractical to operate due to lack of training and manpower issues. The practicality of improving the Police Department through a presence on local waterways, and the cost-benefit, should have been assessed prior to applying for the Port Security Grant.”