At a City Council Finance Committee meeting last Friday, Alderman Ed Burke, the committee chairman, read aloud from the Reader's investigation into CPD's civil forfeiture program. Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media

The Chicago Reader‘s investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s use of civil forfeiture caused a stir in a City Council Finance Committee meeting last Friday.

The revelation that CPD maintains a secret slush fund of tens of millions of dollars outside of its City Council-approved public budget surprised the city’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke, and elicited a statement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget director that City Hall is working to bring oversight and transparency to the fund.

Published on September 29, “Inside the Chicago Police Department’s secret budget”—a collaboration between the Reader, the transparency advocates at Lucy Parsons Labs, and the records request website MuckRock—revealed that CPD has brought in close to $72 million in forfeiture proceeds (both cash and assets) since 2009. The department has used its share of that money (nearly $47 million) to fund the day-to-day operations of its drug- and gang-related investigative units and to buy controversial surveillance equipment.

Reading aloud from the story at the committee meeting Friday, Alderman Burke said, “The department has made 4,700 individual purchases since 2009 totaling—are you listening?—$36.8 million,” according to Fran Spielman’s account of the meeting for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Burke continued, “I’ve been here for 47 years. Gone through 47 budget hearings. And I can’t recall once that this has been disclosed to the City Council.”

During the same committee meeting, Burke successfully championed his proposal to outfit CPD officers with a quick-clotting gauze, to be used in giving first aid to police officers shot in the line of duty. He suggested CPD’s civil forfeiture money should be used to fund it.

Reached by phone today, Burke says he believes not only that the City Council should have oversight and control over the forfeiture fund, but that it must also have control in order to comply with the law. “There can’t be any money expended that is not subject to an appropriation,” he says.

Emanuel’s budget director, Alexandra Holt, suggested on Friday that CPD’s “unfettered access” to the money will not continue for long.

“With this being brought to light even in a grand sense, that spending does need to be scrutinized. No disagreement from me at all. We’re putting tighter controls on them to make sure it’s done in a way that’s transparent,” Holt said, according to the Sun-Times.

A message left for Holt today seeking specifics on the oversight proposal was not returned.

Illinois law allows police departments in the state to keep the majority of cash and assets they seize and successfully retain through civil forfeiture. The Chicago Police Department keeps 65 percent of its forfeiture revenue, passing on 25 percent to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and 10 percent to the Illinois State Police. The state law allows police and prosecutors to use the money at their own discretion.

Left unsaid in the city’s scramble to bring oversight to CPD’s forfeiture fund is whether or not the money should be collected in the first place.

As the Reader‘s investigation revealed, the people whose cash, vehicles, and other assets are seized by Chicago police face an uphill battle when trying to reclaim their property. The burden of proof is on claimants to demonstrate their innocence with regard to the case in which a seizure was made, they must pay hundreds of dollars in fees just to start civil court proceedings, and cases can take many months to years to resolve. Claimants can lose their property even if they’ve not been charged nor convicted of a crime.

Asked whether he believes there should be some effort to curtail the collection of money through forfeiture, Burke said, “That’s a subject for the state legislature to take up.”

The ACLU of Illinois is currently working on reform legislation, which it hopes to introduce in Springfield in January. The civil liberties group wants to make it more difficult for police and prosecutors to keep assets. It’s also seeking to put the burden of proof on the state and to usher in greater transparency about how forfeiture money is collected and spent.

In response to the City Council’s discussion of CPD’s forfeiture fund, the ACLU of Illinois released this statement:

“The outrage being expressed here just underscores the degree to which forfeiture is shrouded in secrecy. But this is not specifically a Chicago problem; these practices go on all over Illinois. What we need is legislation that not only shines a light on the business of forfeiture, but also protects the rights of innocent property owners and discourages law enforcement agencies from seizing property out of financial motives.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the goal of Burke’s proposal, which is to provide the special gauze to police officers shot in the line of duty, rather than all gunshot victims.