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Seizing Chicago: Drug stings and asset forfeiture target the poor

by Alex Clark and Joshua Aiken, August 11, 2017

A Call of Duty video game, a cashier’s check for 34 cents, and 12 cans of peas. Recent analysis by C.J. Ciaramella at Reason and the Lucy Parsons Lab reveals these items as “lucrative” assets seized from poor Chicago neighborhoods.

Since 2012, the Cook County police have conducted 23,000 seizures of assets connected to civil and criminal cases — about 75% of which took place in Chicago. Asset forfeiture is often justified as a way for law enforcement to disrupt illegal drug trades: it allows officials to confiscate the property of people associated with a criminal offense even if the person who owns that property is never convicted of a crime. However, this data reveals police officers are confiscating petty property, mostly from poorer Black neighborhoods. Nearly half of the seizures were for amounts less than $1,000. Asset forfeiture is a tool targeted at major illegal drug trades; property worth a few hundred dollars should rarely account for seizures, let alone half of total assets. Furthermore, when you look at seizures valued under $100, they are geographically clustered in the South and West sides of Chicago with predominantly poor and Black communities.

This is the most recent example proving that at all levels, the War on Drugs functions as a war on communities of color. Nearly half a million people are behind bars for drug offenses and while white people and people of color use drugs as similar rates, people of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and locked away. In Chicago, racial disparities still exist even after possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in 2012.

While President Trump has threatened to “send in the feds” with regards to crime in Chicago, when it comes to drug enforcement, we already have. On top of the state asset forfeiture practices which “exacerbate hardship” for the poor and people of color, sting operations have been targeting similar groups for years, setting them up to fail. A report last year from Columbia Professor Jeffrey Fagan traced drug stings by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Since 2003, these stings set up fake drug stash houses and lured people into committing new crimes.

This is how the stings work: agents would identify individuals suspected of violent crimes and tell them that there was a stash of drugs and money at a local residence. Agents would then provide individuals with guns, cars, and other resources to steal the (nonexistent) drugs and (nonexistent) money and would tell targeted individuals to enlist their friends to assist in the burglary. When people arrived at the stash house, Bureau officials would arrest them and charge them with conspiracy to possess drugs with intent to distribute. Fagan’s study looked at individuals who would be eligible targets for recruitment according to the Bureau, and compared them against the people agents actually singled out. He found that: no statistical explanation except disparate racial treatment makes sense.

  • At least 91% of the time agents targeted Black and Latino people.
  • Three different tests for disparate racial treatment indicated that “race remains a statistically significant predictor of selection as a Stash House defendant.”
  • The probability that only one white person would be selected of the fifty-seven individuals from 2011-2013 is less than 0.1%.
  • Black and Latino people are so overrepresented, no statistical explanation except disparate racial treatment makes sense.

What is most alarming about drug stings and asset forfeiture is that they have been justified as ways to protect communities. However, a District Court judge described the ATF’s sting cases as the government “ensnaring chronically unemployed individuals from poverty-ridden areas.” Because agents have targeted Black and Latino people, communities have less reason to trust or assist law enforcement, and remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. With 2016 being Chicago’s “deadliest year” and as the city’s racial and economic disparity remains stagnant, or in some cases increases, the need for reform is dire.

With the passage of House Bill 303, currently sitting on Governor Rauner’s desk, Illinois could make huge strides in civil asset forfeiture as the bill requires greater transparency and an increased burden of proof. Attorney General Sessions has made recent efforts to undermine state reforms in this area, but HB 303 passed with only one “no” vote in the Illinois State Senate. Hopefully, this signals Illinois will continue making unjust civil asset forfeiture a thing of the past.

And just as advocates are calling for greater oversight in Illinois, the ATF is being criticized for inadequate oversight and lacking direction. In a recent St. Louis sting, agents reported they were given no written direction on how to run their storefront operation, and the Chicago sting report stated that in some cases, informants said they chose targets after simply meeting them on the street. These approaches tear people away from their community by putting them behind bars and show little public safety gains. Instead of the government going out of its way to set people up for failure, policymakers could take alternative job and education approaches to give them a chance to succeed. Likewise, Chicago can still emphasize the resilience of the city, its communities, and probable good intentions of individual police officers in tandem with reform. There are other ways to keep people safe, investigate cases, and achieve justice. None of those ways involve taking 12 cans of peas.

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