April 22, 2012

Drug money helps police

Seized assets help some agencies make ends meet

WILTON -- Police Chief Heidi Wilcox is ramping up her efforts to secure more drug money and other assets seized from criminals to help stretch the small town's police department budget.

click image to enlarge

FINANCIAL REALITIES: Heidi Wilcox became police chief in Wilton last fall.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

Her efforts highlight how some area law enforcement agencies rely on asset forfeiture laws to offset funding gaps.

A local court recently ordered that about $835 in drug money, seized during an arrest made by Wilton police officers last year, will be handed over to the department. Police plan to use that cash and apply for state grants to buy three bulletproof vests, Wilcox said.

Wilcox, who took over as chief about six months ago, said it marked the first asset forfeiture case during her tenure. She plans to keep pursuing seized cash and assets from criminals through the adjudication process.

She described the criminal forfeiture laws as a vital law enforcement tool, especially for small town police forces struggling to keep up with rising costs amid residents' demands for budget cuts.

Three other area law enforcement agencies -- town police departments in Farmington and Fairfield and the Somerset County Sheriff's Office -- have benefited from thousands of dollars seized from convicted criminals over the years, according to agency officials.

They've had courts order that criminals forfeit everything from drug money and all-terrain vehicles to expensive cars and houses. The seized assets go toward a variety of programs, ranging from buying new equipment to building up reserve funds to train officers to combat drug crimes, officials said.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said the explosion of opiate addiction in central Maine has placed more demands on his agency -- and more costs. The sheriff's office has three detectives assigned to three levels of the drug problem: working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration; with state drug agents in Augusta; and with local agents.

"There's a big financial burden to investigating these crimes and we do rely on drug forfeitures," Liberty said. "When you have a search warrant, you may have 10 deputies, all on overtime and at high risk."

Liberty said seized drug assets -- sometimes totaling in the tens of thousands -- have been critical to his department in investigating drug crimes, as well as buying protective vests, weapons, training, and pay for overtime.

Financial constraints

Fairfield Police Chief John Emery recently had a court order that $10,000 in cash seized during a drug bust will be handed over to the town police department. He noted getting the seized cash back, which requires court approval based on the certain legal guidelines, allows the department to keep targeting drug crimes without significantly increasing the town's financial burden.

"It benefits both the taxpayers and the department, and it takes the money out of the drug dealers' hands," he said of asset forfeitures.

When Wilcox, a 20-year veteran law enforcement officer, became police chief in Wilton last fall, she was aware of the financial and logistical problems facing small rural police departments.

She was replacing a chief, E. Page Reynolds, who resigned after less than five months in the position. He had said in interviews that he feared the police force would be disbanded because of budget constraints, and that was a primary reason he left.

Reynolds unexpectedly submitted his resignation shortly after residents at town meeting had debated whether they needed a local police agency. The residents' complaints had prompted town officials to look into contracting with Maine State Police or county sheriff's deputies for public safety, an option used by some other small towns statewide.

Town officials and residents decided against disbanding the town police department and hired Wilcox as chief for the town of about 4,100 residents in Franklin County.

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