The tragic fates of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others have increased scrutiny of horrendous police practices. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took advantage of this spotlight to turn their invaluable form of comedic long-form journalism to the practice of civil asset forfeiture.
The New Yorker featured an essential piece on the practice and people who are affected by this flagrant abuse of power last year. Dara Lind at Vox offers a helpful overview of the practice. On what police departments are doing with the money:
In its ongoing investigation of civil asset forfeiture, the Washington Post analyzed several years of reports from state and local law enforcement to determine what they’d done with the money the federal government had returned to them. They found that the most common use of asset funds was for “communications and computers,” with “building and improvements” coming in second. But even “communications and computers” was dwarfed by the amount of money that police marked as “other” — 44 percent of the money that police got back from the federal government went to “other.”
The Post investigation noticed some particularly frivolous spending, like a $600 coffeemaker or $225 for the face-painting services of Sparkles the Clown. But at least the money spent on Sparkles went to community outreach, which is generally cops’ lowest priority when it comes to asset money. Less than 1 percent of all federally returned money went to community outreach — five times less money than any other category.
The above video is well worth your sixteen minutes, running the gamut from the ridiculous justifications police offer for running off with people’s money and possessions, to systems that incentivizing robbing innocent people of their stuff, to the near impossibility of regaining the stolen property. And yes, I would totally watch Law and Order: Civil Forfeiture Unit.