Amid growing scrutiny of Kentucky law enforcement’s use of asset forfeiture, more than twice as many agencies disclosed last year how much cash and property they seized than they did two years prior.
More than 280 agencies filed required reports last year for seizures that totaled $11.6 million statewide in fiscal year 2019. That includes every single county sheriff in the state, and at least 44 agencies who disclosed their seizures for the first time in at least six years, according to a KyCIR analysis of state data.
By comparison, state data shows 138 agencies reported seizing $5.9 million in 2017.
The surge in reporting comes after a 2018 report from KyCIR that found few agencies complied with a state law that requires agencies to file annual reports with the state’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet’s Office of Drug Control Policy detailing what they seize.
Following that report, legislators demanded more transparency from law enforcement, and both the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police and the Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association have launched a concentrated effort to get more agencies in compliance.
“We think we, as sheriffs, have turned a corner towards professionalism,” said Jerry Wagner, the executive director of the sheriffs’ association.
Wagner said he was surprised to learn that agencies were failing to report. Now, he’s proud to see full compliance from the state’s sheriffs.
His organization started pushing sheriffs to adhere to the reporting requirement by sending out mailers and following up with agencies who hadn’t submitted the reports.
Shawn Butler, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, blames “an educational breakdown” for agencies failing to comply with the law.
“It’s confusion,” he said. “A lot of people just thought they didn’t have to report.”
(Read more: Few Ky. Agencies Report What They Seize)
Agencies reported seizing $61.3 million between 2013 and 2019, according to state data. Nearly 40 percent of that total was reported in just the last two years.
But it’s unclear how much was actually seized, because more than 60 agencies still failed to report in 2019 as required.
Disclosing what is seized each year is important for transparency, but it’s also good for the public perception of law enforcement, said Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Tulio Tourinho, who’s also an advocate for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a non-profit advocacy group focused on progressive criminal justice reform.
Tourinho said agencies should be “methodical” about reporting what they seize, and being ignorant of the law is no excuse.
“If you don’t report, it’s suspicious,” he said. “It’s absolutely detrimental to the relationship between community and police, which is built on trust.”
Agencies Say They Just Learned About State Law
In May 2018, an officer with the Graymoor-Devondale Police Department seized $1,034 from the glove box of a vehicle driven by a man suspected of felony drug dealing.
The agency reported the cash seized — the first time it submitted a seizure report to the state.
The department’s chief, Grady Throneberry, said the seizure was “an unusual situation” for the agency that employs 19 officers and patrols a handful of small, independent cities in eastern Jefferson County.
Throneberry first learned about the reporting requirement at a state training a few years back.
“If we’d known we were supposed to be [reporting], we would have been,” he said.
Typically, Throneberry said his agency lets larger outside agencies, like the St. Matthews Police Department, take the lead on drug investigations in his jurisdiction, and they cut some of the revenue back to Throneberry’s agency. He assumed those agencies handled the technicalities and procedures related to asset forfeiture cases.
“They’re the experts on that — not us,” he said.
At least 43 other agencies also reported for the first time in 2019, according to an analysis of state data. Collectively, those agencies seized nearly $100,000 in the 2019 fiscal year.
In Lincoln County, the sheriff’s department reported seizing about $7,400, a few vehicles and a dozen guns in the 2019 fiscal year — the first time the agency reported. The sheriff, Curt Folger, said he recently found out he had to disclose from the Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association.
Folger said complying with the law gave him a bit of peace of mind.
“I think everybody should be transparent with their office,” Folger said. “I feel better now that we are.”
But Oak Grove Police Chief Dennis Cunningham doesn’t see the value in filing the reports.
His agency of 17 officers operates near the Tennessee border in western Kentucky. In 2019, the agency reported its seizures for the first time: nearly $3,800 and more than a dozen guns.
Cunningham said he understands the reporting requirements now.
“But whether or not I agree with it is another thing,” Cunningham said.
He sees the requirement to report as a cumbersome redundancy. Courts also keep records of forfeitures, he said, and the data should come from the courts.
“I don’t think there is a benefit,” he said. “Why are we doing double and triple the work?”
Police Disagree On Disclosure, Value Of Forfeiture
Reporting seizures is a basic level of public accountability, said Dan Alban, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based civil liberty advocacy group that pushes for more restrictions on asset forfeiture.
The information should come directly from law enforcement, he said.
“Any property a government agency has, it should keep track of that property,” he said. “It’s important for the public and state officials to be able to see the data so they can evaluate what’s actually happening with forfeiture and with the property that is seized.”
In Kentucky, law enforcement keeps 85 percent of forfeited property, which they’re free to spend on a range of equipment, software and other police wares.
Critics claim asset forfeiture profit potential provides officers with a perverse incentive to seek out cash in order to fatten department budgets.
Tourinho said asset forfeiture has “zero effect” on how officers police.
He also thinks it has little impact on combating the drug trade.
“It actually might have a reverse effect,” he said. “When you take away [a drug dealer’s] car or you take their cash, you know they’ll be back at it within a month and they’ll be back at it hard because they’ve got to recoup the loss.”
His agency, the Louisville Metro Police Department, regularly seizes the most cash and property in Kentucky, state records show.
The agency seized more than $27 million, about 450 vehicles and nearly 11,000 guns between 2013 and 2019, according to state data. In Louisville, police use seized funds to buy covert GPS trackers, cameras, and to make payments on ShotSpotter, their gunshot detection system.
Data shows the practice is widespread: last year, 27 agencies reported seizing at least $50,000.
Agencies that do not seize cash or property are not required by law to report to state officials, but the state asks them to report, anyway, and data shows more agencies are doing so.
In 2013, five agencies reported not seizing anything. Last year, 79 agencies reported no seizures, according to state data.
And though the state’s data is more complete now than in years past, some law enforcement officials still question its validity.
Full Picture Still Unknown
According to state data, the Christian County Sheriff’s Office has only reported its seizures once in the last six years. But Lt. Scott Smith provided KyCIR with completed annual reporting forms dating back to 2013, showing the agency seized more than $28,000 from 2013 to 2018 that’s not reflected in the state’s totals.
State data also does not include every law enforcement agency. There are 350 agencies reflected in 2019 data, but there are 411 certified law enforcement agencies in Kentucky, according to the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Training.
The state’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet’s Office of Drug Control Policy maintains asset forfeiture data. Lisa Lamb, a spokesperson for the cabinet, declined a request for an interview with cabinet officials.
“The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet is currently reviewing the process of asset forfeiture,” said Mary Noble, the cabinet secretary, in an emailed statement sent by Lamb. “We are following the current law, and will work to comply with any legislative changes.”
Lamb said the agency sends letters to each agency in an effort to remind them of their responsibility to report what they seize, but she did not address specific questions about data discrepancies or why the cabinet fails to include every agency in its database.
The data available shows that about 40 agencies failed to report their seizure totals to state officials in each of the past six years.
Legislation Would Require More Disclosure
Though more Kentucky agencies are adhering to existing reporting laws, the law, itself, isn’t strong enough, said Alban with the Institute for Justice.
The Institute for Justice gave Kentucky a D- grade in a recent report examining asset forfeiture reporting laws across the nation. Alban said the poor grade is due to the lack of detail collected by state officials.
Presently, agencies are only required under law to submit “a detailed listing of all items seized.”
A bill filed earlier this month in the state’s General Assembly would not only bring a higher level of detail to what agencies are required to report, but it would also strengthen the penalties for agencies that fail to comply. The bill, filed by Rep. Reginald Meeks, a Louisville Democrat, would make agencies that fail to submit reports ineligible to receive $4,000 officer training incentive stipends from the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program, or KLEFP.
A second bill, filed by Rep. Savannah Maddox, a Dry Ridge Republican, also calls for more detailed reporting, and would prohibit agencies from spending seized funds until they report with state officials. Agencies that submit late reports would be fined $500, under Maddox’s bill.
Alban said these details, and more, are needed in order to provide the public with the full scope of asset forfeiture.
“You can’t hold agencies accountable without data,” he said. “You’ve got to have information.”
Contact Jacob Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814-6559.