St. Pete officials question spending of police forfeiture funds
ST. PETERSBURG -
Worried that school children in Campbell Park walk through dangerous neighborhoods, city officials set up a “walking school bus,” where parents and volunteers shepherd about 100 children to and from school.
When they recently tried to tap a police forfeiture fund for $2,000 for volunteers’ background checks, though, police leaders refused, saying the fundcan only be spent on programs or equipment that reduce crime.
So City Council members grew somewhat annoyed at a meeting Thursday when police department officials asked to use the same fund for a $430,000 wish list of items that included $4,000 for two treadmills, $1,850 for a memorial ceremony bell and $2,000 so officers can participate in a 250-mile bike ride that memorializes fallen officers.
“If you can approve those in the forfeiture fund, how can you not include background checks for people who are keeping children safe on their way to and from school?” asked Councilman Jim Kennedy.
Most of the police department’s wish list is for more typical crime-fighting equipment. It includes 18 low-light surveillance cameras, a GPS device to track suspects, tactical armor plates officers wear while searching dangerous places and respirator masks for officers who dismantle clandestine drug laboratories.
Councilman Steve Kornell said he supports funding every item on the police list but was frustrated at police leaders’ blanket refusal to fund the request made by the city’s Youth Services Committee.
“What does not make sense was their bureaucratic response,” Kornell said. “We have a problem; we should find a solution. We should not give all the reasons why we can’t do it.”
Police attorneys who reviewed the request may have thought the “walking-school bus” was a school district program, Assistant Police Chief Melanie Bevan said. After looking into the program in more depth, she said funding for background checks will be added to the department’s appropriations request, which is scheduled to come before the City Council on Thursday.
“It seems like a legitimate program, and [where] there’s a real need we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen,” Bevan said.
The St. Petersburg Police Department has about $1.1 million in forfeiture funds, which come from seized cash and property. Since 2010, the department has spent about $1.5 million from the fund. The City Council and chief of police typically approve spending requests.
Permitted uses of the fund under state law include crime prevention, youth programs, drug education and law-enforcement equipment, said Bill Proffitt, a police department spokesman.
Typically, the department uses the fund for one-off purchases that were not included in the department’s annual $92-million budget, he said.
The walking school bus program is aimed at students who live within 2 miles of school and do not qualify for free bussing.
Volunteers who accompany the students to school must undergo background checks that include fingerprinting.
Up until now, volunteers have been asked to pay for the background check, which costs $50.
“It’s hard to get the adults to sign up,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. “That’s why we’re pursuing the funding.”