Amidst the current national furor against “fake news” is another, more pervasive issue of creating “fake issues” like the myth of policing for profit. There’s been widespread discussion about the need to end the Federal equitable sharing program because a journalist or columnist writes a sympathetic piece describing a case in which the system may not have functioned as intended.
The FOP does not disagree that there is a need for civil asset forfeiture reform. In fact, we worked very closely with Senator Jeff Sessions on this issue going back to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000.
The law enforcement community came together to make the necessary changes to the program to ensure due process protections while preserving equitable sharing as a critical law enforcement tool. In fact, the FOP was an early supporter of administrative changes made to the program by then Attorney General Holder in January 2015.
It is our hope that the next Congress and the next Administration will work with law enforcement, as Senator Sessions did in 2000, instead of against us. Not a single major law enforcement organization supported legislation ending the equitable sharing program–and that’s no way to begin.
And yet, a herculean effort by the Obama Administration established a Task Force on 21st Century Policing which issued a report containing 59 individual recommendations and a large number of those call for new or additional federal funds for state and local law enforcement for a variety of purposes. Not a single one recommended reforming civil asset forfeiture programs or for ending the equitable sharing program.
At a time when the number of officers is declining, federal assistance to state and local agencies is evaporating and deliberate attacks on law enforcement officers are rising, how can this issue be a law enforcement priority? Why are anecdotal accounts in the media suddenly making this a priority in the editorial pages of some newspapers?
For over 30 years, the asset forfeiture program has allowed law enforcement to deprive criminals of both the proceeds and tools of crime. The resources provided by the equitable sharing program have allowed agencies to participate in joint task forces to thwart and deter serious criminal activity and terrorism, purchase equipment, provide training upgrade technology, engage their communities, and better protect their officers. It has been remarkably successful.
We need to understand just how thinly stretched law enforcement has become in the past decade. We are increasingly called upon to do more and more–including calls for service outside our training parameters–with less and less. It’s a cycle we no longer stay ahead of.
The funds and resources generated by the equitable sharing programs are of great value to law enforcement, to public safety and to the community, as states use these shared funds for a wide variety of purposes. In New Jersey, for example, forfeiture funds were used to purchase a supply of naloxone (Narcan) which is now carried by law enforcement officers in that state. Naloxone is used to reverse the effects of opiate (usually heroin) overdoses and is administered by nasal spray.
Between July 2014 and September 2016, more than 852 lives were saved. What better metric for a successful program is there than lives saved?
Like any government program, there can be found instances of abuse and the FOP supports measures to combat such abuses and to improve the integrity of the program. However, to end a decades-long program which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to our nation’s communities and has documented success in deterring and fighting crime based on anecdotal media reports is simply not sound public policy.
The FOP is ready to work together on asset forfeiture reform with the new Congress and the new Attorney General and we are confident that we can protect the due process rights of our citizens without losing the ability to use the profits of criminals and terrorists to make our communities safer.
Chuck Canterbury is the National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, the oldest and largest law enforcement labor organization in the country, representing more than 330,000 members nationwide.