No Forfeiture-Database Backup With Millions on the Line, NYPD Admits

MANHATTAN — New York City is one power surge away from losing all of the data police have on millions of dollars in unclaimed forfeitures, a city attorney admitted to a flabbergasted judge on Tuesday.

“That’s insane,” Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arlene Bluth said repeatedly from the bench.

This morning’s revelation stems from a request filed in 2014 by the nonprofit group Bronx Defenders under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

In the previous fiscal year, Bronx Defenders noted, the NYPD reported seizing more than $6 million in cash and property. Intermingled with the open forfeitures from past years, this meant that the NYPD a balance sheet of more than $68 million in seized currency in any given month in 2013.

Bronx Defenders wants to study department records on the forfeitures, but city attorney Neil Giovanatti has argued that the NYPD lacks the technical capability to extract information from its forfeiture database.

Judge Bluth appeared gobsmacked Tuesday to hear about the precarious position of data in the police department’s PETS database, short for Property and Evidence Tracking System.

“Do you want the Daily News to be reporting that you have no copy of the data?” Bluth asked Giovanatti.

“That deserves an exposé in the New York Times,” the judge added later.

Giovanatti struggled to assuage Bluth’s concerns. “He says the database is in IBM,” the attorney said when asked whether any NYPD personnel understand that system’s back end.

An expert for the Bronx Defenders undermined this point in an affidavit to the court.

“Based on the information I have reviewed about the technical specifications of PETS’s hardware and software, it is my opinion that it is technologically feasible to retrieve much of the data sought from PETS by running queries directly on the underlying [IBM] DB2 database,” said Robert Pesner, a former chief enterprise architect for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Now the owner of the computer consulting firm PC Dialogs, Pesner testified in the 8-page sworn declaration to his expertise in the code underlying the NYPD’s PETS database.

Bronx Defenders attorney Adam Shoop noted Tuesday that Pesner relied on publicly available information for his research.

“It wasn’t based on speculation,” Shoop said.

Also a matter of public record is the database’s cost: One of the 100 largest contracts of that fiscal year, the city paid New York-based vendor Capgemini more than $25.5 million in 2009 to design the database that it is now unsure how to back up.

Bluth will give the city another opportunity to present its own expert on the database’s limitations before holding another round of oral arguments on Dec. 12. Bronx Defenders wants attorneys’ fees once the records are made available, it noted in an Oct. 10 brief.

In addition to proceeds of the NYPD’s own forfeitures, an audit by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General reported in 2014 that the city received another $14 million through an arrangement called the Equitable Sharing Program that allows federal law enforcement to share seized assets with their local counterparts.

As reported last month by the Justice Department’s watchdog, waste and abuse was pervasive in the Equitable Sharing Program. The audit cited Tennessee law enforcement in particular for having spent more than $110,000 in seized assets on catering.

Though the Obama administration shelved the program in 2015, the Trump administration breathed new life into the program this July.