Should Tampa police officials be driving the snazzy cars forfeited by criminals? The St. Petersburg Times raises that question. Last month, Tampa Chief Bennie Holder drove around town in a black 2001 Lincoln Navigator, complete with DVD player and video screen, worth $35,000. Then he switched to a 2001 Chevy Tahoe worth $38,000. A major drives a 1998 Lincoln Navigator ($35,000); a sergeant uses a 1999 Ford Expedition ($34,000).
Tampa seized the vehicles under Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act, which allows authorities to confiscate property used during the commission of a felony or bought with criminal proceeds. The Tampa Police Department has 43 seized vehicles in use, including five Lincoln Navigators, a pair of Ford Expeditions, a BMW and a Lexus. “We believe it makes good fiscal sense,” Chief Holder said in a statement. “We’re saving taxpayer dollars. We’re taking cars from criminals and using them for legitimate law enforcement purposes.”
Leaders of other police departments in the area drive only department-purchased vehicles. “The brass doesn’t get to pick and choose from seized cars,” said George Kajtsa, St. Petersburg police spokesman.
“It may not be the best idea. There’s a perception problem there,” said Leonard Territo, a retired University of South Florida criminology professor. “It’s not good (public relations) for the police chief to be driving around in a top-of-the-line expensive car. As any type of public official, you have to be careful. Public perception is very important.”
John Kleinig of the City University of New York who oversees an institute on criminal justice ethics, agrees that a chief’s public image is important. It might be more prudent from a public relations standpoint not to have the chief driving a fancy confiscated vehicle, Kleinig said, “but it’s hardly a breach of public trust.”