The Chicago Reader has documented for the first time the full size and scope of the Chicago Police Department’s civil forfeiture program—how much money it brings in and how it spends its take. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the Reader, working with the Chicago-based nonprofit Lucy Parson Labs and the public records website MuckRock, obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents—including the department’s deposit and expenditure ledgers, internal e-mails, and purchasing records—that offer an unprecedented look into how Chicago police and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office make lucrative use of civil asset forfeiture.
Since 2009, the year CPD began keeping electronic records of its forfeiture accounts, the department has brought in nearly $72 million in cash and assets through civil forfeiture, keeping nearly $47 million for itself and sending almost $18 million to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and almost $7.2 million to the Illinois State Police. The department doesn’t disclose its forfeiture income or expenditures to the public, and doesn’t account for it in its official budget. Instead ,its Bureau of Organized Crime, the division tasked with drug- and gang-related investigations, oversees the forfeiture fund in what amounts to a secret budget—an off-the-books stream of income used to supplement the bureau’s public budget. The Reader found that the police department uses civil forfeiture funds to finance many of the day-to-day operations of its narcotics unit and to secretly purchase controversial surveillance equipment without public scrutiny or City Council oversight.