The city’s Community Police Oversight Board lobbed multiple questions about civil asset forfeiture at top officers in light of the December airport incident.
By Kelli Smith
More than a month after authorities seized more than $106,000 from a woman at Dallas Love Field, Dallas police officials spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday about the policies that made the seizure possible and the ensuing criticism that erupted in the community.
During its monthly meeting, the city’s Community Police Oversight Board lobbed multiple questions related to the seizure at Deputy Chief Thomas Castro and Major Devon Palk, who said they couldn’t discuss specifics on the incident because it’s under federal investigation.
However, the commanders acknowledged there were misconceptions that spread after the department lauded the seizure on Facebook in an apparent publicity move. They clarified in detail how and why police conduct civil seizures of money and other property, saying they aren’t taking cash from people for no reason.
“What got us here was a misstep — I think shortsighted,” Palk said. “However, I will always take the opportunity to better explain not just to the board but to the public … so that we can be as transparent as possible.”
The discussion was prompted after two Dallas police detectives seized $106,829 in cash from a 25-year-old Chicago woman at the airport Dec. 2.
Police did not arrest the woman, who was at the airport during a layover, but suspected her of trafficking narcotics after a police dog, Ballentine, alerted authorities to her luggage.
Police were able to conduct the seizure through civil-forfeiture policies, which under Texas law allow law-enforcement officials to take property they believe is part of a crime or could be part of a crime in the future. The policies have long been perceived as controversial because of the broad powers they give officers.
Dallas police publicly praised Ballentine on the department’s Facebook page, where they posted a picture of the dog behind dozens of stacks of cash. The post went viral, sparking a torrent of questions and criticism.
Castro said many posts online contained false assertions and were based on limited information. He said the seizures are meant to dismantle crime including human and drug trafficking.
Palk added that there’s oversight on where the funds go and how they’re used — including through the U.S. attorney’s office, district attorneys and judges that ultimately determine whether seized property should be returned.
He said that no police personnel receive any bonuses or compensation for seizures, which can be conducted only if officers have a warrant or probable cause. He said authorities will “immediately” return property taken if the investigation shows a lack of probable cause at any point.
The bulk of property seized by law enforcement can be used toward local budgets, which has led some advocacy groups to denounce civil-forfeiture laws as permitting “policing for profit.”
“Are confiscated funds utilized to fund things utilized by the police department? Yes, absolutely,” Palk said. “But they’re to supplement our expenditures, they are not to supplant. We aren’t doing this to try to increase our budget.”
Palk said Dallas police use confiscated funds toward undercover operations, equipment expenses, overtime, a drug-testing contract and software licenses. As an example, he said, seized funds are being used to maintain a helicopter donated to police last month by businessman Ross Perot Jr.
In 2019, Palk said, Dallas police processed 29 vehicles and 159 currency seizures for a total of $843,463. In 2020, he said, police took 15 vehicles and 174 currency seizures for $979,773.
Police more than doubled their take in 2021, with 16 vehicles and 281 currency seizures totaling $2,352,393.
Palk said he believes police had more seizures in 2021 because of “changing priorities of how we are targeting criminal enterprises” and more attention to trafficking and narcotics cases under new Chief Eddie García.
Police did not provide specifics on how much of the seized property was ultimately awarded to the department, saying that many cases are still awaiting court judgments. Pressed by an oversight board member, Castro estimated that about 5% of seizure cases are overturned and the property returned to its owner.
Oversight board members also urged police to work on their messaging and get in front of questions sooner whenever incidents occur that could lead to widespread misconceptions and distrust.
“There’s a reason why this case made people very upset,” said Brandon Friedman, who represents Council Member Paul Ridley’s central and eastern Dallas district on the board. “I would hope that the department would at least consider that about why there was this reaction to that because it’s something that needs to be bridged.”
Palk said people traveling through Dallas who aren’t committing a crime “have absolutely nothing to worry about” from police. He said that Dallas police do not seize amounts of cash less than $1,000.
“We are not out here just taking people’s money without probable cause,” he said. “That goes completely against what our department believes in.”