Lawmakers in New Jersey have proposed a novel way to fix policing’s diversity problem: using seized cash and other assets to recruit, hire, and train minority cops.
The idea tries to accomplish some good with a widely despised policy known as asset forfeiture, which allows the government to take assets associated with crimes—and not always return them. In New Jersey, for example, police can confiscate property valued at less than $10,000, and cash amounting to less than $1,000.
Critics of the bill, however, say that dirty money—even used to fund a meritorious cause—is still dirty.
Introduced by New Jersey Republican Antwan McClellan in January along with two other legislators, Assembly Bill 649 proposes that local prosecutors or attorneys general in the state should have the discretion to use the forfeited funds to increase the state’s law enforcement diversity, one of the most requested and universally supported police reforms. Under current law, the state only allows funds obtained through asset forfeiture to actively improve a department’s ability to investigate, prosecute, and solve crimes. The bill would amend that law to allow funds to go toward other causes.
“If the money’s coming from the community, why shouldn’t it be used in the community?” McClellan told VICE News. “When law enforcement tries to use that money for community stuff, they have to jump through some hoops with the attorney general’s office. But they don’t have to jump through those same hoops when they buy military equipment. So I wanted to try to alleviate that.”
In New Jersey, the application process for using asset forfeiture money for any purpose outside of direct law enforcement use can take weeks, even months, according to McClellan.
Law enforcement has seized billions of dollars in the U.S. In 2018 alone, the federal government, 42 states, and Washington, D.C., obtained $3 billion in civil forfeiture, according to the Institute for Justice. New Jersey saw collections of $10.8 million the same year.
And depending on the state, police don’t always need to prove the person committed a criminal act to keep the property, which critics say essentially makes the process state-sanctioned theft.
While many states have some form of asset forfeiture on their books, at least 36 states have tried to rein in the practice. In 16 states, including Utah, Virginia, California, and New Jersey, for example, someone has to be convicted before cops can take their cash or property.
Only four states—Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina—have abolished the practice outright.
Cops have also been accused of abusing the funds to further militarize their equipment, or even live large at their departments. Police have paid for armored personnel carriers, fancy banquets honoring their own members, and even high tech coffee machines, according to a 2014 Washington Post investigation.
“What it [the New Jersey bill] aims to do, fund these laudable programs, is great,” said Alexander Shalom, the senior supervising attorney and director of Supreme Court advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “The problem is the funding source is problematic. Just because it’s going to a better purpose doesn't make the process of obtaining the money any less harmful.”
This is the second time McClellan has proposed the idea. The first time, when McClellan was just a freshman in the state Assembly, he said he couldn’t properly make the case. Now, the bill seems to have a better chance at becoming law.
On Monday, the Law and Public Safety Committee passed the bill with seven yes votes and one no vote. It would need 41 votes in the 80-member Assembly and 21 votes from the state’s 40-member Senate before landing on the governor’s desk.
The bill also highlights the ongoing national battle between those who want to curtail police power by decreasing their budgets and those who believe more will help rectify the institution’s systemic issues. In 2020, a majority of New Jersey’s counties pledged to increase police spending before the end of the year.
Even with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s pro-police reform stance, with diversifying the state’s police force a major goal of his administration, critics say the state should foot the bill on diversity efforts.
“If law enforcement budgets were down, and I don't think there's evidence to support the idea that they are, departments can always say, rather than buying a new armored personnel carrier, we're going to invest a little more money in initiatives, like recruiting people of color to become police officers,” Shalom said. “They’re choosing not to.”
Although McClellan told VICE News that no one has directly reached out to his office about the bill, he’s open to improvement.
“The good thing about legislation is it can always be amended and made better,” he said. “So if somebody brings something to me that makes more sense and is a better idea, I’ll gladly listen.”
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