NYC cops say they can't reveal figures on cash seized from people – the database is too shoddy

New York City cops claim they can't tell anyone how much cash they have seized from people under civil asset forfeiture laws – because its database is not up to snuff.

The US city's police department is being sued for snubbing a Freedom of Information request from the Bronx Defenders advocacy group, which had asked for figures on dosh seized by officers. America's asset forfeiture laws are highly controversial: cops can snatch goods, cash and gift cards simply on the suspicion the gear may be associated with crime.

Records on asset seizures are stored in a Property and Evidence Tracking System (PETS), which was built for New York's finest by Capgemini. It runs on an IBM z10 mainframe with a Big Blue DB2 backend database and a web-based an ERP system from SAP, according to contract paperwork dating back to 2012.

"They've customized a solution for the NYPD that has allowed us to completely digitize our evidence tracking process, which has not only given us a clear view of the data in our system, but has also freed up the time of our law enforcement teams so that they can focus on protecting and serving the citizens of NYC,” James Onalfo, NYPD's chief information officer said [PDF] at the time.

However, in a New York City court on Tuesday, NYPD lawyer Neil Giovanatti said the $25.5m system was, so very conveniently, simply unable to produce the required information. Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arlene Bluth was incredulous.

"That's insane," she said repeatedly. "Do you want the Daily News to be reporting that you have no copy of the data? That deserves an exposé in the New York Times," Court House News reported.

An expert witness for the Boston Defenders agreed with the judge. Robert Pesner, an IT consultant and a former government programmer with knowledge of the PETS technology, said [PDF] there was no reason why a simple SQL query couldn't bring up the required data. It was also claimed the police department was unsure how to even back up the data store.

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