At a recent meeting, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton remarked to the Citizens Police Review Board that his department has been using forfeiture funds — money seized from illegal activity, such as drug raids — to beef up its budget and help purchase extraneous items. Burton said this practice was like receiving “pennies from heaven” and stated he hopes to use forfeiture funds to purchase tiny cameras for each CPD patrol officer to wear.
In discussing such spending, Burton seemed to be unaware, or perhaps dismissive, of where our state constitution and laws require this money to go: our struggling, cash-strapped schools.
Missouri’s Criminal Activity Forfeiture Act states all forfeiture funds must be put into the School Building Revolving Fund, from which all public K-12 schools are eligible to use money for construction projects, and that records of all property seized must be documented to the state auditor every year. But state auditor Thomas A. Schweich stated last year that out of estimated tens of millions of dollars in seized assets in 2010, only $26,000 was put into the school fund, and not a single law enforcement agency in the state filed the required report.
A disastrous SWAT raid on a Columbia home in 2010 brought international attention and scorn to our city and its police force. The raid was only one of more than 100 conducted since 2007 by the department, and as we have now learned, the money seized in these raids has gone under the radar to be spent at CPD’s discretion, in flagrant violation of state law and without having to answer to the public or the city.
The purpose of drug busts and other seizures is to protect the community, not to line CPD's pockets. There is a serious problem when the outcome of a raid conducted by the department might directly allow them to purchase whatever it desires without accountability. Any ulterior motive or appeal for "profit" that might arise is a shameful corruption of the purpose and contract of our police force.
Burton said the police department usually spends forfeiture funds on “something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget.” His statements comprise the full extent of what we know about where the money’s gone, and that is hugely alarming. It’s not enough to trust that the CPD is using these forfeiture funds to make Columbia safer. It’s not enough to hope or assume our police force is spending the money responsibly. We know for sure that it’s not going where the law requires it to go: to help fix our crumbling schools.
Beyond that certainty, CPD has provided zero accountability to us, the taxpayers who depend on its services and trust in its integrity, for how this potentially massive amount of funds is being spent.
It would be great if all police officers in the city had cameras pinned to their lapels. It would be great if our police department had nothing but the best equipment. But some Columbia Public Schools students walk on duct tape at their schools. Renovations and repairs are greatly needed throughout the district and the state. Respect for the law must be central to our law enforcement agencies, and CPD’s brazen refusal to follow the law and send its forfeiture funds to the school fund is very troubling.
Chief Burton should set an example for Missouri police departments and restore faith in his own by putting its forfeiture funds where they need to go. And then, and only then, can we talk about new toys.