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Opinion

Nassau police fund belongs to public

Nassau police headquarters in Mineola

Nassau police headquarters in Mineola Credit: Howard Schnapp

One consequence of the myriad problems at the Nassau County Police Department crime laboratory will be the retesting of at least 3,000 forensic samples, at a minimum cost of $400,000. In view of Nassau's budget problems, this expense, stemming as it does from mismanagement and a lack of oversight at the lab, should cause an uproar.

It hasn't, largely because when District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced the costs, she said the money would come from the police department's forfeiture funds, "rather than sticking taxpayers with the bill."

But aren't those forfeiture funds -- mostly seized assets garnered by the department from operations with state and federal agencies -- taxpayer money?

They derive from taxpayer-funded law enforcement, arise from crimes committed against society and are to be used for the public good. So it's worth asking: How much money does Nassau have in its two forfeiture funds, one federal and one state, and how much will the retesting deplete them? Are there programs that would have happened that now won't, because this money is being used in this way?

The Nassau cops' answer to these questions: It's none of your business.

They're not telling how much they have or how it's used, and that's wrong. The people have the right to know.

The Nassau County district attorney's office also has a state and a federal forfeiture fund, derived from its investigations with other agencies, that supplements its budget. That office freely revealed its balances as of Jan. 1: $3.5 million in the federal fund and $2.4 million in the state fund. The Suffolk County Police Department also shared its total of $1.2 million in its two funds as of March 31.

There is oversight of such funds -- the federal ones by the Department of Justice and the state ones by the Division of Criminal Justice Services -- and they are subject to local audit and purchasing procedures. One requirement is that the forfeiture funds be used only to supplement the police department's budget, and not for general operating expenses or a personal kitty. While there have been scandals elsewhere when departments have used the money on exotic "undercover" cars and $30,000 "training exercises" in Las Vegas, those abuses are the exception. The Nassau police have publicized some good things done with theirs: Gun buybacks, training, equipment and a youth academy.

Nassau police brass are refusing to release even the most general information about the funds, arguing that publicizing exactly what forfeiture money is spent on could endanger officers and operations. Obviously, it's not a good idea to let criminals know what type and color vehicle undercover officers will be driving or the specifications of the bulletproof body armor this money buys, but no one is asking for those specifics.

Taxpayers have a right to know how much is there and where it goes. The money can be used for overtime, so who's getting it, and how much? It may be great that the funds provide for a police youth academy. Who makes that happen, and what do they receive?

Public agencies shouldn't have secretive slush funds. And when $400,000 must be used to retest evidence thanks to the foul-ups of the Nassau police, it doesn't make it any easier to believe the organization is handling its forfeiture funds with the precision of Swiss bankers.

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