The Chicago Police Department brings in an average of $7 million a year through its use of civil asset forfeiture, a process by which the police can seize money and property from people who are merely suspects in a crime and not convicted of anything. The money goes to anything the department deems worthy, from new squad cars and police radios, to equipment repairs and access to databases like LexisNexis, to surveillance equipment like GPS trackers and cell-site simulators, commonly known as StingRays. The department disclosed its asset forfeiture spending to the Chicago Reader, open records website MuckRock, and local Chicago transparency nonprofit Lucy Parsons Labs.
The funds the CPD gets from asset forfeiture are not included in the department's budget, and neither the mayor's office nor Chicago City Council has oversight as to how the funds are allocated. Instead, they are placed in a secret bank account operated by one bureau of the CPD, with all funding requests being signed off only by the chief of that bureau. (A recent chief of this bureau resigned in March of last year over allegations that his bureau uses Homan Square, a large police-owned warehouse, to torture and falsely imprison innocent civilians.)
Most notably, between 2010 and 2015, the CPD spent nearly $2 million on surveillance technology, including StingRays and license plate readers. Police departments routinely use StingRay technology to spy on activists and protesters, and Chicago's is no different. Chicago police have been caught discussing their use of StingRays to monitor Black Lives Matter protesters' phones over police scanners.
In May, Democratic Illinois politicians and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner had a rare moment of bipartisan productivity, and passed new regulations requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tapping someone's phone with a StingRay and delete data about anyone not immediately subject to an investigation after three days. Still, as these devices are being purchased with money that is not subject to an independent audit, it's not difficult to see power being abused. "When you have tools being acquired in ways that are not subject to oversight, that's a real concern," Ben Ruddell of the ACLU of Illinois told the Reader.
Many states have passed similar regulations, with some going further. On Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that bans police departments from profiting from assets seized from anyone not convicted of an actual crime.
The CPD is, of course, not the only law enforcement agency in Illinois to utilize civil asset forfeiture. Records obtained by the state ACLU show that the Illinois State Police have taken in over $70 million in just the last two years alone, some provided by the Chicago Police Department but much of it obtained themselves.
Though police departments in major cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore have made headlines for abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws, a data analysis by the Sunlight Foundation found that the five municipalities most reliant on asset forfeiture to boost the police department's budget are town of under 1,500 people in states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia—and Illinois.
A 2015 report by nonprofit libertarian law firm the Institute for Justice graded each state's civil asset forfeiture laws through a civil liberties lens. The average for all 50 states was a D; Illinois received a D-.
Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.