Georgia police agencies lose millions in Congress budget move

Georgia law enforcement agencies and others across the country may drop out of anti-drug and terrorism task forces and are scaling back spending after Congress raided a stash of federal funds that has given this state more than $200 million in recent years.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program allowed local and state agencies to fund body cameras for patrol officers, laptops for marked cars and overtime to investigate drug cartels. The money was from assets seized in busts the agencies helped make by working on federal gang, drug and terrorism task forces.

But late last year, Congress took $1.2 billion from the controversial program to plug a hole in the federal budget, and the Justice Department decided just before Christmas to stop payments indefinitely.

Local agencies provide the majority of the manpower on these task forces, critics of the cuts said, and some elsewhere in the U.S. are preparing to quit. Assigning a single officer can cost $100,000 per year in salaries, benefits and expenses.

“If you take those resources away, the public is going to be at risk,” said Richard Beary, immediate past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which complained that the decision was made without consulting state and local agencies. Some $300 million in approved payments were stopped, according to the Justice Department.

The move to halt payments pleases no one — not even opponents of the Justice Department program, who say it violates civil liberties because property can be taken away permanently without a criminal conviction. The federal agency continues to seize cash and property and hopes to re-start payments if it can.

But the resulting outcry does show that agencies have a powerful incentive to police for profit, despite rules that are supposed to prevent it, said Lee McGrath, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties group that thinks existing law makes it too easy to confiscate property. While agencies are barred from using the proceeds for day-to-day operations, it’s clear that police have come to rely on them to keep afloat, he said.

“Law enforcement is in a cycle of dependency on forfeiture,” McGrath said. And if the agency resumes payouts, it will be paying past debts with future money, he said. This will increase the pressure on agencies to seize more.

“Legislators should take notice that various law enforcement association leaders are in essence screaming, ‘show me the money,’” McGrath said.

The payment freeze especially impacts smaller, more rural agencies that have fewer tax dollars and grant funds to fall back on, said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, who is working with federal officials to resume payouts. They’ve been using the money to keep pace with new technology and techniques used by big city departments.

“They rely very heavily on the funds to support the city or county sheriff’s office,” Loudermilk said. “It’s a much more significant part of their budget than it would be a larger city or county.”

Some 40 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, forfeiture proceeds have installed defibrillators in police cars and outfitted the 54-officer force with body cameras, said Cartersville Police Chief Frank McCann. In 2014, the city received an unusually high $1.1 million from the Justice Department, which amounts to about 20 percent of its annual budget.

Now major training and equipment purchases are now on hold, McCann said, but the city is still paying out salaries and benefits to its five officers assigned to Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation task forces.

“We have our guys assigned down there because we believe in the mission, but it’s going to become very difficult in the future to sustain that,” he said.

The payment freeze will force the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to slash training on domestic violence and forensics and cut back on buying better crime scene cameras, said GBI Deputy Director Rusty Andrews. The agency received nearly $1.2 million from equitable sharing in 2014, and there isn’t enough money from the state to make up for the lost payments.

“Every dollar of that state budget is spoken for, and we don’t have any fat in budget at all,” Andrews said. Twelve GBI agents are assigned full-time to federal task forces.

No Georgia agency has pulled out of joint operations so far, spokesmen from federal agencies said. But the cost may be too great for either side to bear. Local departments don’t have the resources to keep their detectives on years-long operations to take down international crime organizations that operate in their neighborhoods; federal agencies don’t have enough manpower or local expertise to do it on their own.

“Our position … is as long as you can keep them there, keep them there,” Beary said.

He said the Justice Department officials may re-evaluate the funding freeze in March.

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