LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Police departments all over the state used the money for everything from bulletproof vests, to training, to weapons. The funds were received through the Federal Asset Forfeiture Program or Equitable Sharing Program which allowed police to take money and property from people and keep up to 80 percent of it.
In December, the Justice Department suspended the program, because of budget cuts.
Jason Pye with Freedom Works hopes the program never returns. "That is a perversion of justice in my opinion," Pye told WKYT's Miranda Combs. "Ultimately, the funding for state and local law enforcement should come from state and local governments," Pye explained.
London Police used the funds for educational programs and equipment for officers. "It does put a strain on the department itself," said Chief Derek House. He said equipment they've bought, like body cameras, with Federal Forfeiture funds have kept them relevant in the fight against drugs.
WKYT pulled numbers from Lexington Police. In 2012, the department used about $739,000 in asset forfeiture funds, and about half a million dollars in 2013. In 2014, $330,000 came from federal forfeiture funds. The money was used for overtime pay, weapons, travel and helicopter upgrades, and more.
Hazard Police Chief Minor Allen said the program was key to Eastern Kentucky's fight against drugs. "I feel like we're at ground zero on a lot of that and this is where a lot of effort should be concentrated," he said. Hazard has 30 sworn officer. A couple of them, at one time, worked with drug task forces to put a bigger footprint on the area's drug problem. But money from the federal program helped the chief be able to pay for those officers. Since the money is gone, they've started their own in-house drug program that concentrates more locally. Chief Allen admits, that's not ideal, when the drug infestation spreads beyond the city limits. "It's like the old adage says, if you are going to be in the ballgame, you've got to have a player on the floor," he said. "The Asset Forfeiture portion of it was what you would call "icing on the cake" because it did provide funds to buy equipment with."
The program, has its critics, and according to Charles Clark, it's victims. His case, out of Northern Kentucky, became a talking point for a national justice group. "If this could happen to me, it can happen to anybody," he said in a video interview with the Institute for Justice. Clark was at the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport in 2013. Security suspected he had marijuana in his bag. They didn't find marijuana, but they seized $11,000 in cash he had with him. He's now represented by the Institute for Justice, who are using him as an example of what they believe is ordinary Americans being victims of policing for profit. "Innocent people are being treated like criminals and that's ridiculous," Clark said.
"It's a property rights issue," Pye said. "It's a constitutional due process issue."
Pye said there are examples all over the country where local police are more focused on federal forfeiture funds than traditional policing. And while the program is suspended, he wants to see it never return.
"Ultimately, I'd like to see the federal government's equitable sharing program, what law enforcement use to prosecute at a federal level, I would like to see it ended completely."
But places like Hazard, they're hoping the suspension is just that, and will return soon.
"Just because you lose one ballgame, doesn't mean you won't play again," Chief Allen said.
Statement from Department of Justice concerning federal asset forfeiture program:
The Justice Department remains committed to supporting the essential work of state and local law enforcement through payments from the asset forfeiture fund and other sources.
The Department has temporarily suspended approximately $300 million in equitable sharing payments from the asset forfeiture fund to state and local law enforcement because the recent budget deal rescinded over a billion dollars from the fund. Assuming Congress does not act to further rescind money from the fund, the department will reinstate equitable sharing payments once sufficient funds are available to do so in a manner consistent with our obligations to the financial integrity of the fund.
The department continues to support state and local law enforcement through hundreds of millions of dollars in grants that were not affected, including for joint law enforcement operations, justice program grants, and COPS programs. Collaboration between federal, state, and local law enforcement is essential to keeping our communities safe and secure.