Another Excessive Police Tactic: Pulling Drivers Over and Taking Their Cash

Last week, a U.S. Senate committee held a hearing on federal programs that have militarized local police, leading to armed confrontations like the one seen in Ferguson, Missouri, where an officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, and paramilitary units subsequently taunted and clashed with protesters. During those hearings, one expert stood out for speaking about how police culture has changed since the 1980s, with too many officers now adopting a confrontational and predatory mindset. AlterNet followed up with Pete Kraska, a professor and chair of graduate studies and research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Kraska also discussed another trend in police overreach, recently profiled by the Washington Post: local police pulling over motorists and taking their cash or threatening drivers with arrest.

Steven Rosenfeld: The Post recently had a series of investigative reports describing a trend in policing: during highway stops of motorists, cops look for cash and seize it. One aspect of this trend is that local and state police have been hiring private trainers to teach them how to intimidate motorists and grab their cash, saying they’ll arrest them if the driver refuses. When did you first hear about this?

Pete Kraska: Asset forfeiture—as a means for the federal government and local police agencies to generate funds—started in full force during the 1980s drug war. The federal government put in place massive training programs for local prosecutors and police to apply the federal asset forfeiture program and tactics nationwide. It was of course successful in the sense that nearly all local police departments jumped on the bandwagon.

I first noticed how significant it was when interviewing SWAT commanders in the early 1990s. They made it clear that a major motivating factor for drug raids on private residences was the confiscation of cash and goods that could be seized under the new asset forfeiture programs being pushed by the feds. It is critical to recognize that a dynamic entry into a private home is most accurately characterized as a “contraband raid”—because the SWAT team is not only looking for drug evidence, but also cash and guns.

By the way, I first documented the absurdity of asset forfeiture when conducting survey research of Kentucky local PDs. We found back in 2000 that the average amount of cash confiscated by the police under asset forfeiture programs at the local level was $300. Think about that: this completely debunks the notion that the police are going after drug kingpins. It also gives us good insights into the ugly reality of this practice. What person in their right mind is going to retain even a cheap attorney for $500 while trying to prove the innocence of their $300? It is hard not to see this type of application as little more than theft.

SR: Last week, you told a U.S. Senate committee how a paramilitary mindset has been growing in the culture and tactics of local policing since the ‘80s. You noted that SWAT teams evolved from being rarely used in emergencies to now being used proactively in drug raids and at protests.

Are traffic dragnets and preying on motorists, including searching for cash, a similar shift in police culture?

PK: Absolutely. I think the aggressive turn in American policing caught many off guard—including in the academic community—because of all the fanfare about the supposed community policing revolution (CP). What the reformers failed to understand is the amazing capacity of real-world bureaucratic players to twist fuzzy concepts like CP into anything that suited their own ideological leanings. And for a large segment of the police community, paramilitary culture is far more alluring than what they called sarcastically, "grin and wave" policing.

My research documented, therefore, the little noticed but significant backstage trend of militarizing the American police as opposed to community police-driven democratization. Of course, "militarization" is only the most overt, and offensive, sign of the aggressive turn. Stop-and-frisk, aggressive patrol work, and an array of highly sophisticated and intrusive surveillance and information-gathering programs—along with the police wanting to generate their own funds through asset forfeiture—are all coalescing into an intensely aggressive and security-driven new police paradigm.

SR: You also testified that the growth of paramilitary policing is tied to outsourced training—where private contractors impart this battle-ready mindset. Do you think highway patrols and sheriffs would not be looking for cash and seizing it were it not for these private-sector consultants training cops to do this?

PK: What a dark example of the neoliberal turn in American governance: Private companies being hired by the government to train police how to work at the margins of the law to confiscate people’s private assets so that the police departments can generate their own slush funds outside taxpayer dollars.

A very important untold story in American policing today is the role that for-profit training vendors play in negatively influencing police culture. They exploit the understandable fear of victimization that police have always had to deal with—and push a survivalist warrior mindset where all encounters with the public might be lethal. They also exploit the natural tendency of bureaucracies to expand through any means possible, even if that includes engaging in highly questionable asset forfeiture practices.

What these vendors don’t seem to care about, or understand, is the significant blowback the police are inevitably going to receive from the people that they are ostensibly serving. The militarized, security-conscious, and growth complex ideology leads to disastrous consequences not only for marginalized people, but also the police themselves. In saying this, though, I do think the toothpaste has left the tube—and getting it back in will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible.

SR: Before we turn to what the public might do, we have to understand the civil liberties issues. Turning to the law, can you tell us two things: First, how does this tactic press or exceed the boundaries of what is not a constitutional search and seizure? And what's an unlucky motorist to do, if he gets pulled over and a cop finds he has several thousand dollars in cash?

PK: I would encourage anyone reading this to read through the fine work that the Washington Post did on this practice. The scary thing is that, thus far, these obviously warped practices have been deemed constitutional. Put simply, the police can confiscate anyone's paycheck cash or savings, they are bringing to a car dealership. They don’t even need to make a lawful arrest. The law assumes the cash is tainted, and then it is up to the citizen to obtain a lawyer and go to court to prove the cash was wrongfully confiscated. Yes, this sounds crazy, but it is constitutional.

What’s a person to do? Just hope you’ve run into a decent and reasonable police officer (and after working closely with over 60 different police departments I can say unequivocally there are many wonderful people working in policing); hope that the prosecutor in their local area hasn't gone to a for-profit training program teaching asset forfeiture; and hope that they kept their bank receipt with them (if, of course, it came from a bank).

SR: What do you think can be done to restore some semblance of balance in police culture, so not every citizen is seen as a potentially violent threat, and not every traffic stop becomes a chance for a local department to supplement its taxpayer-supported budget?

PK: It’s not a comforting answer, but we have to recognize that the police, as an institution, are not making these changes in a vacuum. We have become a fearful and insecure culture. Moreover, the entire idea of government service to its people has been under siege by neoliberal forces for decades. Many analysts refer to this new set of social conditions as “late-modernity.” The police, and indeed the entire crime-control apparatus, are a major player in shaping the nature of late-modern times, as well as being impacted dramatically but its structural and cultural forces.

An aggressive turn in police culture is merely part of the larger turn in American society—one that is increasingly relying on militarism and governmental surveillance and force as its central problem solving ideology. A new reform effort, or greater consciousness-raising among the public, might relieve some suffering for those most impacted by these trends, but the overall trend will likely keep marching along.

Another important factor in unrestrained growth in this direction is the emergence of policing and crime control as a runaway growth complex. The confluence of governmental and private sector interests has resulted in an ever-expanding crime-control industry that primarily serves its own interests, seeking out new problems for its ever-growing solution. The Washington Post or the U.S. Senate “realizing” the emergence of militarized police or asset forfeiture after almost 30 years of growth, and now entrenchment, illustrates well the intractability of these trends.

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