Police Chief Ken Burton calls forfeiture funds 'pennies from heaven'

The forfeiture funds are to be given to local schools, according to the Missouri Constitution.
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton speaks to members of the Citizens Police Review Board at its meeting in September at Columbia City Hall. Burton said he would likely be able to purchase on-body cameras for police officers using funds seized in investigations. Maneater File Photo

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton told the Citizens Police Review Board at its last meeting he hoped to buy on-body cameras for officers of the police department by next budget.

“They’d be purchasable for next budget on Oct. 1, 2013,” Burton said. “We come across forfeiture funds sometimes. We get into these dope investigations sometimes and end up with funds granted to us, so it’s not to say that we couldn’t do it sooner.”

Board member Daniel Jacob asked Burton how forfeiture funds were used.

“It’s usually based on a need — well, I take that back,” Burton said. “There’s some limitations on it. … Actually, there’s not really on the forfeiture stuff. We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget, for instance. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on because we need to have those purchased. It’s kind of like pennies from heaven — it gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it to be perfectly honest.”

Forfeiture is defined as the government seizure of property connected to illegal activity, according to Cornell University's Legal Information Institute.

"The clear proceeds of all penalties, forfeitures and fines collected hereafter for any breach of the penal laws of the state, the net proceeds from the sale of estrays, and all other moneys coming into said funds shall be distributed annually to the schools of the several counties according to law," the Missouri Constitution states.

In 1995, the Missouri legislature delegated that all forfeitures of assets shall be appropriated to a designated fund. The School Building Revolving Fund created from the forfeiture funds provides financial assistance to Missouri school districts financing capital construction projects.

“We don’t waste it," Burton said. "It’s nice to be able to pick and choose.”

Blue Team, a program that documents every officer's use of force while on the job, was purchased with forfeiture funds, Burton said.

“Burton does not have the legal authority to use asset forfeiture revenues in any fashion,” Americans for Forfeiture Reform creator Eapen Thampy said. “The law clearly requires him to deposit this money with the schools. Last year, Missouri auditor Thomas A. Schweich found that not a single law enforcement agency submitted an independently audited report of money received by participating in federal forfeiture programs, as is also required by the law.”

The on-body cameras would allow reports of misconduct to be viewed from the police officer’s perspective, Burton said.

“(The cameras) aren’t very popular with the officers,” Burton said. “(They’ll) record everything, and (what it records) can’t be disputed. We found that it gets officers out of trouble more than it gets them in trouble.”

The lens for the on-body camera is so small it can fit on the officer’s glasses or lapel while the camera body, which is about the size of a cellphone, sits on the officer's belt, Burton said. He estimated they would cost $1,000 each.

Downtown officers have been equipped with the on-body cameras for more than a year now, Burton said.

The on-body cameras would allow viewers to see the speed of the vehicle and what officers are doing while driving, such as when they turn the red lights on.

“I think (the cameras) are the way of the future,” Burton said.

The video cameras currently in police vehicles have many disadvantages, Burton said. They don’t show what’s going on in the backseat unless they are turned around, and they lose audio only a few yards away from the car.

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