R.I. town has too much money Drugs: Seizure of drug dealers' assets has enriched the police department of a small seaside community -- and spurred citizen complaints.

Sun Journal

September 09, 1998|By Hilary Hinds Kitasei | Hilary Hinds Kitasei,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. -- In poor villages across Mexico and Colombia, drug money has brought incongruously modern schools and health clinics. In this little seaside community drug money is bringing a swanky station, big-city materiel and the trappings of a gendarmerie to a tiny police squad.

Little Compton (population 3,400) had little choice about how to spend more than $4 million it has reaped as its share of assets seized in local drug busts. The law is unambiguous: "The local law-enforcement agency must be the beneficiary of the funds, not the community as a whole."

When Congress revived asset forfeiture under the 1984 Crime Control Act as a major tool in the war on drugs, it didn't intend to transform local police departments such as Little Compton's into mini-juntas. In fact, as a result of Little Compton, the law has been amended for cases of "windfalls," where the forfeiture money exceeds 25 percent of a local police department's budget. Too late to help poor, rich Little Compton, whose forfeiture fund yields in interest alone nearly half the value of its police budget ($419,000 this year).

The bust was as close as a town can come to winning the PowerBall lottery.

Fifteen years ago, says Jane Cabot, president of the Town Council, the police department got a call from North Carolina. "A lot of phone calls were going to someone in Little Compton."

The next night, Ron Coffey, then a newly hired patrolman, now captain-detective, happened to pick up the someone on a routine traffic stop.

"I did a routine background check on the guy," he recalls. "Found out he paid cash for his house. Found out he was a deserter from the South African army. And for the next five years, even after both the Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs backed away from the case, I continued to watch him."

He finally approached the suspect with no search warrant, only "a thick folder of surveillance reports of what I'd been seeing all those years." The next day the man's wife called Coffey at home -- "and spilled everything. She laid out the entire organization for us. About freighters offloading hundreds of thousands of pounds of hashish in Naragansett."

When it turned out that Little Compton was in for a share of the assets, a house and red jeep Cherokee were only the hors d'oeuvres.

"The money hit the town like winning the lottery," says Joan McKenzie, an artist and former member of the town council. "We thought, we won't have to pay the police anymore."

Reality decreed otherwise. Little Compton's chief of police, Egbert Hawes, a retired Rhode Island state trooper, held power over the money. It was he who submitted to Washington all requests for expenditures from the fund. Every check requires his signature, along with the town treasurer's.

Citizen complaints eventually triggered an audit. Washington disallowed expenditures deemed unrelated to law enforcement -- sending young people to a problem-solving program in Wisconsin, a wood-chipper ostensibly bought for target practice but also good for cleaning up after storms. No fireworks or midnight basketball.

Priority is given to generating more seizures. Washington approved a trust fund to pay Coffey's salary so that he could be lent to the Rhode Island Fugitive Task Force, which has enabled him to bring back more money to Little Compton from seizures in Providence, Boston and New York.

Forfeiture money cannot be used to pay the salaries for existing positions or replace existing equipment, so the tax advantages to the town are illusory. The taxpayers have seen their yearly police budget continue to grow, if only slowly -- and they are incurring future liabilities they couldn't have anticipated.

The way to get a new fire station, it seemed, was to tie it to a new police station paid for by the drug-seizure funds. Washington approved that, but the eventual plan for a $1 million combined police/fire complex would have located it on the town commons.

The summer-only residents, who have to sit silently in the bleacher section at town meetings, gasped -- an aesthetic offense to the postcard charm of the commons! The town barber was enraged, too -- at the prospect of losing the community ball field. He sued the town.

Many plans later, with legal and other fees nibbling away at the million-dollar appropriation, a new design costing more than $2 million is before the voters. But since the chief refuses to put any more of his forfeiture funds into the project, the taxpayers now have to pay half the cost.

Cabot, facing re-election this fall, supports the police. "It's the feeling of the council that it's cheaper to float a bond for 5 %J percent than it is to use forfeiture funds that are getting 6 or 7 percent in interest."

That leaves a highly endowed police department deciding what level and style of law enforcement Little Compton will have.

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