The stain of civil asset forfeiture on the conscience of residents persuaded the Norman City Council on Tuesday to use general fund money instead of a free pot of cash to pay for nearly $1 million of police equipment.
Meanwhile, the council considered postponing a separate vote to use asset forfeiture funds to buy an armored vehicle for police.
While criminal asset forfeiture are proceeds from criminal convictions, civil asset forfeiture does not require a criminal charge or conviction. O
klahoma ranks a D- for transparency in civil asset forfeiture according the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm has found.
An agenda item proposed the use of asset forfeiture funds to pay $943,160 for police equipment ranging from night vision goggles and SWAT gear to drones and robots.
The council, however, voted 6-3 to fund the items with general fund money after Ward 7 Councilor Stephen Holman proposed it following heated debate among residents.
Ward 3’s Kelly Lynn, Ward 5’s Rarchar Tortorello and Mayor Larry Heikkila voted against the decision to use general fund money.
In a separate item, Ward 1 Councilor Brandi Studley asked the council to postpone a vote to use asset forfeiture funds for a military-style vehicle, a Lenco BearCat.
She asked staff to reschedule the item for Jan. 24 to allow for a public hearing on the item after residents expressed concern with the ways in which it would be used.
The vote to postpone a decision had not been taken by press time late Tuesday.
The decision to use general fund money rather than asset forfeiture proceeds bothered some council members who said it would compromise the health of the general fund when free money was found elsewhere.
Councilor for Ward 8, Matt Peacock, asked the city’s financial services director, Anthony Francisco, to comment on the future need to subsidize the water fund after voters declined to approve a rate increase.
“From a financial perspective, we do want to try to reserve expenditures in the general fund for things that cannot be funded from any special revenue fund,” Francisco said.
Councilor for Ward 6, Elizabeth Foreman, was concerned about the unforeseen, as was the case when the council had to come up with $9 million to cope with an ice storm in 2021.
Tortorello said he was concerned about future events as well.
“I don’t agree that this is the right path forward,” Tortorello said. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen in the next six months.”
Ward 2 Councilor Lauren Schueler noted that with $4 million in a rainy day fund, natural disasters would be covered.
Lynn said while he did not like civil asset forfeiture, the money was available and the law should change.
“That’s what it’s there for,” Lynn said. “If we do this, we’re taking from our taxpayers for things we could use on whatever we wanted. Those funds are limited for this kind of use.”
While Deputy Chief Rick Jackson told the council that the forfeiture fund is “primarily” from criminal proceeds, residents noted some of the funds do stem from civil asset forfeiture funds.
During public comment, Michael Blunk called the practice “taxation as theft” while Marguerite Larson said, “people can’t get a public defender,” in civil asset forfeiture cases.
Among the nine residents who spoke against civil asset forfeiture funds, most said they approved of the council using general funds.
Among the 10 residents who supported the purchase, most were not against the use of forfeiture funds.
Supporters said it was “dangerous” for everyone if officers didn’t have the right equipment.
Roger Gallagher said officers hope for the best but should be prepared for the worst.
“Society has changed since the 1950s,” Gallagher said. “It’s become more vitriolic. It’s become more questionable. Families have had a huge problem meeting some of the societal uproars and the police are on the receiving end.”