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Thursday, January 9,2014

Seizing assets, spending money

Federal audit of Lansing Police Department shows forfeiture funds mismanaged, pointing to larger, statewide issue

by RJ Wolcott
The Lansing Police Department is the subject of a recent U.S. Department of Justice report showing instances of poor financial management and misallocation of federally awarded funds over the past five years.

In an audit of the department’s revenues from asset forfeitures — given to state and local departments to support police operations — federal officials found irregularities relating to where the money was kept and how it was spent.

From July 1, 2008, through June 30, 2012, more than $800,000 was given to the Lansing Police Department as a part of the equitable sharing revenue program, which is funded through the assets seized during criminal investigations.

The audit says LPD failed to separate federal and state allocations and also neglected paperwork related to how funds were spent from 2009 to 2011. Those were updated during the course of the audit. Even though investigators found filings for 2012, that information was found to be inaccurate. Federal officials also found the department misspent more than $3,000 on pay for civilian overtime and $12,563 on uniform allowances.

LPD Chief Mike Yankowski said in a statement: “While the DOJ informed us that the audit found several issues, they were very minor in scope. These errors were unintentional and the audit has provided clarification on the proper regulations and procedures.” LPD followed up with a corrective action plan as well.

The collection and use of forfeiture assets by law enforcement agencies has been contentious in Michigan.

Long held as a means to disrupt criminal activity, particularly drug offenders, asset seizure by law enforcement officials stands as an affront to public opinion, according to Charmie Gholson. Founder of Michigan Moms United, a group dedicated to ending the war on drugs, Gholson believes this latest report is indicative of a system that leads to unfair treatment of those who may have not even faced a conviction.

“It’s all about drug prohibition and the failed war on drugs,” she said.

More than $25 million was seized and used by law enforcement officials in 2012, according to the Michigan State Police.

A 2010 study from the nationwide advocacy group Institute for Justice found numerous issues with Michigan’s forfeiture law, giving the state a D- rating.

In reaction, several Michigan lawmakers — including state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills — introduced legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to issue detailed seizure reports as well as detail more information about each case and whether any subjects were convicted.

“I think it’s pretty outrageous that people’s assets can be taken without a conviction,” he said. McMillin has also signed on with a number of representatives in bipartisan support of another proposal prohibiting asset seizure prior to a criminal conviction.

While he has high hopes for these bills, McMillin believes greater public awareness of the laws here in Michigan is required to hasten change.

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