The New York City Police Department will hand over 160,000 documents that chronicle the department’s practice of seizing cash, cars and phones from Bronx residents between June 2016 and July 2017, public defenders in the Bronx announced Monday.
The hand-over is part of a settlement of litigation brought by The Bronx Defenders and Davis Wright Tremaine that challenged the department’s refusal to provide substantial details about the department’s property seizure and civil forfeiture policies through freedom of information requests.
The information, according to Bronx public defenders, will allow the first meaningful glimpse into the department’s practices and their impact.
“Until today, the impact of the NYPD’s seizure of property and cash has only been seen and felt by the low-income people of color it routinely affects, like our clients in the Bronx,” Adam Shoop, legal director at The Bronx Defenders, said in a statement. “This settlement will change that.”
The public defender organization filed a Freedom of Information Law request in 2014 in an attempt, the group says, to gather basic information around the millions of dollars of property that the NYPD seizes during arrests. The FOIL asked for details on how much is being seized, how much is kept as revenue, and how much is being returned to people arrested by the department.
After receiving what they describe as only a handful of documents, The Bronx Defenders sued in August 2016 to compel the department to respond to the information request.
What was public about the NYPD’s seizure policies shows the department taking in, and keeping on hand, millions of dollars taken from arrestees. The Defenders noted that, historically, a single line in the department’s budget, “Unclaimed Cash & Property Sale,” accounted for the department’s handling of seized material.
In 2016, its most recent budget, the department identified $7.1 million it had taken in, but provided no additional details. While 2017 was not accounted for, 2018 was estimated to see the figure grow to $8.25 million.
Material provided in response to the Defenders’ FOIL request last year showed the department’s seizure policy has resulted in an even larger overall balance. According to the records provided, over the course of 2016 the balance of just seized currency by the NYPD ranged between $68 million and $72 million. By April 2017, the department reported that number had increased to more than $74 million.
According to the Defenders, throughout the litigation, the department has acknowledged it performs no accounting on its property seizure or forfeiture practices. A $25 million system the public defenders say is responsible for tracking property seizures lacks the ability to create reports.
The Bronx public defender organization said the 160,000 documents it’s now received from the department will hopefully provide a detailed accounting of the department’s practices, which the organization has promised to make public once its analysis is finished.
In a statement, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the current system the NYPD has in place is used for the “efficient management” of seized material, “not for reporting out on various informational requests, especially since the system contains personal information of members of the public.”
“There has been no allegation that any of the assets were mishandled,” the spokesman’s statement continued. “In an effort to be more transparent, the NYPD was able to provide information to satisfy the Bronx Defender’s FOIL request and end the litigation while at the same time protecting the personal information in the database.”