Village Life Cover Story

Local Treatment Programs Seek
Drug Money Seized by Police

By Karen Winner
American News Service

NEW YORK -- Three years ago, Hilda Chavis, vice president of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, saw a ray of hope for the blighted neighborhoods her organization serves.

At that time, new federal guidelines had just given community groups nationwide a legal opening to claim a portion of the money that police seize from the ill-gotten gains of drug dealers. Until then, police enjoyed a "finders-keepers" policy that let them keep a portion of the money they seized for police use.

In the Bronx, where HIV infection from intravenous drug use is rampant, illiteracy rates are high and poverty is steep, community leaders saw the new source of funding as a literal lifesaver. "Oh my God, if we just had a little piece of that pie," Chavis recalled thinking.

But since the federal guidelines were handed down in 1994, not a penny has come through to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition or any other neighborhood organization in New York. Chavis' arduous negotiating efforts with police typify the difficulties that activists have encountered in trying to tap the drug money for their drug-afflicted communities.

When U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno announced the new guidelines, the idea was that communities could play a significant role in eliminating illegal drug activities through prevention efforts.

"The overall theory is that these monies could be used to help with rehabilitation, drug education, domestic violence shelters, to indirectly help law enforcement," said Alice Dery, assistant chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1984 Congress passed a law allowing law enforcement agencies to retain all of the money they seize from illegal enterprises. The inventory of federally seized cash and properties grew from $33 million in 1979 to almost $2 billion in 1994, according to the General Accounting Office, the independent arm of Congress that monitors government programs.

The new guidelines, based on the federal Guide to Equitable Sharing, allowed community organizations to receive some of the money, through requests to police. But the guidelines did not require the police to share any of the assets.

According to the Justice Department, the question of whether to keep the funds or turn them over to community groups should be left up to the state or police. "If a particular police department chooses not to pass through shared monies to a community-based group, it may be because of a shrinking department budget," Dery said.

Critics say this discretionary aspect has undercut the whole intent of the federal initiative to funnel part of the money to the neighborhoods where drug dealers conduct their lethal trade.

Jaci Feldman of the National Training and Information Center in Chicago said communities need their share of the funds to attack the root problems, such as abandoned buildings and vacant lots. "You can put ten drug dealers in jail tomorrow but ten more will come into the neighborhood the next day if it's in the same rundown or disorganized condition. If you start to fix up your neighborhood the drug dealers will go away," said Feldman, whose organization provides training to community organizers in how to obtain the funds.

Efforts by community groups to get the police to share the money they seize from illegal enterprises are under way in Chicago, Oakland, Calif., Providence, R.I., Denver, Cleveland and Milwaukee, among other cities. But there is no record of success because neither the Department of Justice nor any other government agency keeps track of the communities' requests, according to Dery.

Interviews with community leaders and police officials in various parts of the country indicate, however, that the results have been mixed.

In February, police in Oakland parceled out $12,000 to six nonprofit organizations for community programs, but only after steady pressure from local groups, according to Dan HoSang of PUEBLO -- People United for a Better Oakland.

In Providence, community leaders say former Police Commissioner Bernard Gannon promised them the money and then retired. But Capt. John Ryan, spokesman for the police department, said officials there "had no recollection" of any pledge made to leaders of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, an activist group that has spearheaded the effort in Providence. Gannon's successor, Urbano Prignano, has refused to transfer any of the funds, citing budgetary constraints.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition is struggling to find out where it stands with the New York City Police Department. The coalition includes a dozen tenant and neighborhood groups that have succeeded in reclaiming vacant lots ridden with crime, turning them into parks, gardens and playgrounds.

Chavis says for two years police officials told the group drug funds were being used for police business and none was available for community organizations. Frustrated by the response, coalition members started picketing the homes of mayoral aides and using other aggressive forms of advocacy.

Then, just before Christmas last year, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani issued a press release with Police Commissioner Howard Safir, pledging a portion of the seized assets to local nonprofit groups. But no further details were offered, and the Bronx group has been unable to get any further official information from the police, according to Chavis. "We haven't been able to get hard information," Chavis said. "We've been stonewalled."

Yolanda Jimenez, the NYPD's commissioner of community affairs, acknowledged that the delays have left communities in states of anxious anticipation but said the plan is moving forward.

"Unfortunately this has been delayed a lot longer than we wanted it to. This is the first time for us. We're not looking to delay this. We want to get it out to the communities," said Jimenez. She added that the department will soon issue applications for community groups requesting the funds.

According to the plan, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator's office --designated by police as the conduit for community funding -- will review applications and make selections, said Jimenez. The length of the review process depends on the number of requests the city receives, Jimenez said, adding that she expects the funds to be distributed by the fall.

Leaders of the Northwest Bronx coalition remain skeptical, however. Chavis said the community group has repeatedly asked for the kind of concrete information that Jimenez supplied to The American News Service but has received none.

Meanwhile, the New York city council is considering a bill that would require the police to set aside 15 percent of all money seized by police for community organizations engaged in crime prevention, job training, housing and other activities. Fifteen percent is the typical share allowed to local groups under the federal guidelines.

Elsewhere, there are similar disputes between police and community groups. In Chicago, the police department promised to disburse the full 15 percent of cash assets to community groups. But Feldman of the National Training and Information Center said that in meetings with community leaders, police officials have misstated the amount of cash seized to keep the total artificially low.

"They (the police) said there was only $38,000 over two years. Our figures show they were seizing a million dollars a year," said Feldman, who said she got the numbers directly from the U.S. Justice Department.

Chicago Police Sgt. Robert Gerwig of the Organized Crime Division strongly denied any attempt by police to mislead the community and said more money had become available since May.

"She (Feldman) was saying we weren't being forthright. We are not a big seizure center like New York or L.A.," said Gerwig. He said that after Feldman got her numbers, "checks totaling $500,000" came in from the Justice Department and raised the pot of eligible funds from $38,000 to $117,000, under the 15 percent formula.

Feldman said she stands by her charge that the Chicago police undercounted the money, which has yet to be received by any community organizations.

Under the rules, when federal agencies work with local law enforcement in joint investigations, they can share the proceeds, but the police must first apply for the money, and the Justice Department must approve the amount requested. In Florida, a local scheme has progressed much further. The state legislature passed a law not just allowing, but requiring, police to give away 15 percent of the assets seized in local crime investigations. In St. Petersburg, police have been circulating the cash in communities since 1992, two years before the federal guideline changes.

Using locally seized assets, the St. Petersburg police have distributed between $12,000 and $15,000 a year to community organizations. Recipients have included the Boy Scouts, a neighborhood crime watch group, and the Police Athletic League.

In other places, however, community leaders have become resigned to continuing conflicts with police over drug money. Said HoSang of the Oakland coalition, "If the police department wants to they can stall you and I don't think that we would have a whole lot of recourse."

Posted on June 5, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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