On a rainy November Saturday two years ago, five busloads of protesters from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition drove around Manhattan, stopping at city officials’ homes demanding that neighborhood groups receive some of the millions of dollars seized from police drug busts. William Bratton, the Police Commissioner at the time, had his doorman accept their letter. Deputy Mayor Peter Powers’ neighbor took his.
“For Mayor Giuliani, we delivered a pumpkin pie with a slice missing and a note saying, ‘We only want a piece of the pie,’” recalls the group’s vice president, Hilda Chavis. But Giuliani was out at an event that day, and the nearly 200 activists left their edible symbol at Gracie Mansion without talking to the Mayor.
The bus tour was but one day of a long campaign to persuade the New York Police Department to adhere to a federal recommendation that local law enforcement share with community groups as much as 15 percent of the assets it seizes in drug raids–a take that could add millions of dollars for projects such as after-school programs and teen outreach for kids at risk. “We went to the federal government; we went to the Comptroller’s office; we went to the Public Advocate. We went everywhere we could to fight for this,” Chavis says.
Last December, it seemed as if the work had paid off. Facing pressure from the City Council and grassroots activists, Giuliani and the New York Police Department announced that community groups would get a piece of the pie. “It’s particularly fitting that assets of drug dealers and criminals who have done so much to destroy neighborhoods will be flowing to community groups who are doing so much to rebuild them,” Mayor Giuliani said in the Police Department’s written statement.
It’s one year later, though, and community groups have yet to see a promised dime. Several city deadlines have passed without comment by the police, and now groups have been told it will be at least three more months before they can even apply. The persistent delays beg an increasingly obvious question: Has the mayor gone back on his pledge?
When Congress passed the federal asset forfeiture laws in 1984, it was a “finders-keepers” policy allowing law enforcement agencies to keep cash, property and assets seized from criminals. Over the years, these funds have become a mighty income stream: Federally seized cash and properties grew from $33 million in 1979 to almost $2 billion in 1994, according to the General Accounting Office.
Three years ago, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno introduced the Guide to Equitable Sharing, which made community groups eligible for a share of seized proceeds in a “pass through” from police. “The overall theory is that these monies could be used to help with rehabilitation, drug education, domestic violence shelters–to indirectly help law enforcement,” says Alice Dery, assistant chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. “[But] police department budgets are shrinking right now. That’s why we left it discretionary.”
Figures compiled by the New York City Council Finance Division show that the NYPD expanded its pool of seized cash from $10 million in 1994 to $18 million in 1996, and some community groups quickly recognized the possibilities of the Justice Department’s guidelines. The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition first met with then-Police Commissioner William Bratton and subsequently with his deputies back in 1994 to ask for a community pass-through, but they were told the funds were being used for police business and no money was available.
The coalition–ten tenant and neighborhood groups that press for everything from reasonable water rates to Community Reinvestment Act compliance from local banks–didn’t give up. They turned to the National Training and Information Center in Chicago, an organization that battled for the new asset forfeiture guidelines in Washington and now advises groups around the country on the issue. With NTIC’s help, Northwest Bronx devised a campaign strategy.
Coalition leaders spoke with Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who brought them together with Bronx City Council members for talks. They pleaded their case to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They pushed the New York City Comptroller’s office to share results from a still-unfinished independent audit of the asset forfeiture program’s books.
Pressure on police dramatically increased in July 1996 with the revelation that the NYPD had used nearly $400,000 in asset forfeiture funds to produce a glossy color magazine, Spring 3100–”The Magazine for the Department by the Department”–essentially an internal department newsletter delivered to each officer’s home. According to the federal guidelines, “Priority should be given to supporting community policing activities, training and law enforcement operations calculated to result in further seizures and forfeitures.” Magazine production would not apply.
The coalition’s work was beginning to pay off. On December 11, 1996, the Public Advocate introduced a resolution in the City Council calling on the police to turn over the full 15 percent of seized proceeds and suggesting the money be spent on crime prevention, job training, housing and other community-based programs.
Two days later, Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir issued a press release announcing the NYPD’s new plan to share some of the forfeiture funds with community groups. Members of the coalition were so happy they barely noticed that the one-page release mentioned neither a dollar amount nor a timetable for releasing the money.
It wasn’t until a City Council budget hearing in March of this year that activists learned the city would offer up only $100,000. “That’s less than 1 percent,” Chavis says incredulously, pointing out that with a full 15 percent pass-through, the groups would be eligible for roughly $7 million since the guidelines took effect.
Despite its modest size, the program still has not gotten off the ground. First the department selected the Police Foundation, which raises money for special programs within the department, to oversee distribution. But that violated federal guidelines that require a city agency, not a private organization, to be the fund’s conduit. The Justice Department sent the department back to the drawing board.
Last spring, the NYPD’s Commissioner of Community Affairs, Yolanda Jiminez, gave assurances that the department would issue grant applications through the mayor’s office by June 15. “Unfortunately this has been delayed a lot longer than we wanted it to,” she said at the time. “This is the first time for us. We’re not looking to delay this.”
But more than five months have gone by since mid-June, and grant applications were never sent out. Marjorie Cohen, executive director of Manhattan’s Westside Crime Prevention Program, says she received an announcement about the program in the spring and has been waiting ever since. Her group wants to use the money to help support a number of projects, including a conflict resolution program in a local middle school between police and teens. “I haven’t had any official notification about what’s going on, and I’m certainly anxious to know,” Cohen says.
The police department, mayor’s press office and Mayor’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator (which has been tapped to disperse the funds) each referred City Limits to one of the other agencies when questioned about the community pass-through program.
In mid-November, Criminal Justice Coordinator Katie Lapp met with members of the coalition to discuss the program, announcing that her office would have grant applications ready by March 1998. “We’re concerned we’re being put on a back burner for something so important to community groups,” says Jane Chaney, a board member of one of the coalition’s member groups who was at the meeting. “It’s been extraordinarily frustrating. For the minuscule amount of money they’re talking about, it’s really appalling.”
Karen Winner is a New York City journalist and author of the book Divorced from Justice (Harper Collins).