Police

The Keene Police Department is poised to receive nearly $55,000 in asset forfeiture money after a City Council committee vote Thursday night.

These assets — seized during criminal investigations — are a common revenue stream for law enforcement that proponents say can disrupt crime rings and support police work, while opponents argue the practice gives officers an incentive to take assets to fund police operations.

At a meeting at city hall, the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full council accept a total of $54,781.26 stemming from assets that were seized during a pair of drug-related investigations that took place between October 2019 and June 2020. Capt. Steven Stewart, who addressed the committee on Thursday, said the investigations were done jointly with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re mostly using [the money] to further other drug investigations,” Stewart told The Sentinel following the vote. ”Meaning using it to make controlled buys from drug dealers.”

He declined to comment on the details of the investigations, saying they’re being handled at the federal level and that he believed the cases are ongoing. Police Chief Steven Russo, who was not at Thursday’s meeting, did not respond to an email sent Wednesday evening requesting more information.

According to figures given to The Sentinel by Keene Finance Director Merri Howe, the money the department receives from asset forfeitures has been fairly sporadic in recent years. Keene received $10,686.13 in forfeiture money in 2020, after receiving nothing in 2019 and 2018. But in 2017, the city received $42,368.66, and in 2016 received $47,039,67.

Forfeiture money comes from assets — which can be cash or other items — seized when investigators believe they are connected to the commission of a crime. In 2016, New Hampshire passed legislation that requires a person to be convicted of a criminal offense before assets can be forfeited.

However, according to a 2018 report from N.H. Public Radio, the state’s asset forfeiture rules don’t apply to federal cases. “In practice, that means all a state trooper or local cop needs to do is call in federal partners, such as the FBI or Homeland Security, and have them seize the money, even if there isn’t an arrest and conviction,” the story says.

Civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Institute for Justice, have objected to the practice, with the latter calling it “policing for profit.” On its website, the ACLU says forfeiture allows police departments to seize and keep any asset they allege to have been involved in a crime.

“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources,” the organization says. “But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.

“For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”

Stewart, however, disputed that asset forfeiture improperly incentivizes officers, saying that the activities are investigated because they cause a nuisance in the community, with increased traffic to and from places where drugs are being sold. He said these investigations typically involve drug dealers rather than those who use drugs but don’t sell them.

The captain also noted that there are restrictions for how the funds can be used. They can’t go toward overtime costs, he said, adding that the money “isn’t going into anyone’s pockets.”

Asked whether the city had ever discussed potentially rethinking its approach to asset forfeiture policy, Assistant City Manager Rebecca Landry said Thursday that the issue has come up on several occasions over the course of her career with the city. She emphasized that the funds are typically used for a specific reason and not considered to be a “profit” for the police department.

“I think that we tend to have restrictions on how that money is spent,” she said. “But it’s certainly worth exploring, and the city’s always open to a conversation like that.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com.

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