It seems like a police department in Miami-Dade County tries to make a huge weapon or ammo purchase every month. Since July, departments have asked for bulletproof vests, assault rifles, license-plate readers, sketchy gunshot detectors, and even free armored trucks. Those requests are almost always buried deep within county documents, subject to little or zero public scrutiny, and rubber-stamped by city or county commissioners.
Today Miami-Dade Police added yet another huge equipment request to this year's list: MDPD would like to spend $410,000 on new rifles. If that request is approved, the money won't come from taxpayers' pockets — but that isn't necessarily a reason to celebrate.
Instead, the rifle money will be siphoned from the county's Law Enforcement Trust Fund, which is made up almost entirely
In essence, the department would like to spend $410,000 taken from people accused — but not necessarily convicted — of nonviolent drug crimes and spend it on new guns for themselves. In some cases, people don't even have to be charged with a crime to have their money seized.
Multiple MDPD spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and it's unclear the kind or number of rifles the department wants to buy. But as a point of comparison, in August, the City of Miami Police Department requested roughly $100,000 for 148 new AR-15 rifles and supplies, which means a $400,000 request is a massive purchase.
"Trust funds will support specialized equipment for police officer safety, specifically, the purchase and deployment of police rifles and related equipment for sworn personnel within the Miami-Dade Police Department," the request says.
MDPD is asking for the rifles as part of a $3 million trust-fund cash request. The Miami-Dade County Commission will need to sign off on the request at its November 1 meeting before any of the money is approved. Among other items, the police department wants to spend $600,000 on data-driven policing initiatives, $122,000 on forensics equipment, $380,000 on robbery prevention, and a whopping $1.2 million on violent crime investigations.
County police are able to spend Trust Fund money on items that weren't included in their yearly budget. But calling the money a "trust fund" makes the cash seem much
Critics of police forfeiture programs say the practice encourages departments to seize items willy-nilly to bankroll extra supplies for themselves.
"Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources," the American Civil Liberties Union says. "But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting."
Through civil forfeiture, police are allowed to seize money or items (including cars and houses) from people they suspect were involved in drug crimes. The defendants don't even have to be guilty. If cops find drugs on or near a property, they can basically seize whatever they want.
In many cases, entire police departments or prosecutor's offices are propped up using civil forfeiture cash. In 2012, the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper found that city District Attorney Seth Williams was sucking up $6 million a year by seizing tiny amounts of cash from nonviolent drug offenders. Often, the city would try to seize small bills, like $20 or $100, from defendants. But the money added up quickly because victims would either not be properly notified that their money was taken or decline to hire a lawyer to fight a $100 or $200 forfeiture charge.
Many other departments have been caught doing the same: In April, the Washington Post reported that an Oklahoma police department incorrectly seized more than $53,000 in ticket money from a Christian rock band.
Both John Oliver and conservative news website the Daily Caller hate civil forfeiture, which says a hell of a lot about how ethical the practice is.
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One could certainly argue that police shouldn't be allowed to spend their own forfeiture money at all. But even if you ignore that argument, there's a host of community-service initiatives MDPD could funnel that money into instead of buying more rifles.
Here's the full request: