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Spokane City Council approves more oversight for drug seizure funds

Nick Bramhall via flickr

The Spokane City Council has voted to increase oversight on how police spend money they seize during drug investigations.

That money, called civil asset forfeiture funds, is controversial. Police can seize it, or other property they can sell for cash, if they believe its connected to a crime, even if the owner is never convicted.

Under the new code, the city council must come to an agreement with the chief on all civil forfeiture spending and half of all asset forfeiture funds must be spent on youth drug prevention.

Both the city’s mayor, Nadine Woodward, and the Police Chief strongly opposed the proposal. They argued there’s not enough funds for confidential informants, undercover cars and drug prevention. They told the city council to look elsewhere for the funding.

“Youth drug prevention programs are a great idea, no argument here. We need to do more to work upstream to educate children about the dangers of drugs, but this should not come at the expense of SPD's drug enforcement activities. And if you continue to delay SPD's ability to access their forfeiture funds, more illicit drugs will find their way onto our streets.”

City Council President Breean Beggs said the fund has enough money for both programs.

“We have funded every (Special budget ordinance) for forfeiture money that the department has requested," Beggs said. “This is not a case of us defunding something for this, it is not, we have given them everything they have asked for. So, I don't see it. Because we have excess money, I believe we should set it aside. As Councilwoman Kinnear said, we won't necessarily get the money spent any time in the near future because we have to do it, but we will at least have made a commitment of the money so we can get non-profits who would do it to actually bid on it."

Other city council members argued that police had been investing in undercover drug buys for decades, and drug overdose deaths and use are still up. They said youth education, may decrease demand long-term.

The city council was scheduled to approve a special budget ordinance, which is how the city council spends money outside of the normal budget process, on civil asset forfeiture funds, but didn’t have the required five votes to push it through. It would have spent $125,000 on youth drug education and $40,000 on confidential informant drug buys.

Two more conservative councilmembers voted against it, Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle, as well as Karen Stratton, who said she couldn’t vote for a proposal the chief strongly opposed.