Seeds of Synergy
The Weld County effort has precedents to lean on. Fifteen years ago in Portland, Oregon, a group of developers was eager to sink a few hundred million dollars into the downtown Lloyd’s shopping center district under the umbrella of the business improvement development program. The plans included rehabilitating buildings and building a hotel and the Rose Garden Coliseum for the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.
“We were trying to create an area where we would lure people. But it was also the highest area of incidence for street muggings, prostitution, car prowls,” and other crimes, says Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk, whose office covers Portland. Schrunk’s team was too strapped financially to provide the developers a full-time prosecutor, so the businessmen decided to take on the burden themselves. They pulled together voluntary contributions of more than $100,000 to recruit a district attorney devoted to their neighborhood. They also donated an office and a secretary.
“Now they have a regular budget and fund a deputy district attorney out there, and they tax themselves,” says Schrunk. “It has been very successful. They cleaned up the area, and they like it.”
Portland’s experiment was part of the genesis of the National Center for Community Prosecution (NCCP), a nationwide neighborhood district-attorney program designed to help cleanse commercial and residential areas. Mike Kuykendall, who was part of the original Portland effort, later moved to Washington, D.C., to run the NCCP for five years up to early 2005. He helped spread the program to 150 cities.
Kuykendall says the NCCP uses its attorneys in a way that is not typical. Instead of spending all day in court as per the norm, they are out in the neighborhoods “working on problem people and problem places,” he explains.
“Traditionally D.A.s were reactive. We’d wait until there was a crime, the police would bring us a report, we’d review it, we’d launch the charges, we’d try the cases or plea them out. This [NCCP] way of prosecution is really new over the last 15 years,” says Kuykendall.
The NCCP is the sort of public-private sector collaboration that is now being used successfully in financial-sector crime-fighting campaigns like that of Weld County.
Weld County’s grassroots movement to nab criminals has sparked interest far from home, Buck says. He has received out-of-state queries about the task force from officials who are considering the implementation of a like-minded crime-busting organization.
Other efforts have sprung up independently. For example, Josh Marquis, district attorney for Clatsop County, Oregon, and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, says, “There are consortiums that have been created around the country, usually by banks and insurance companies, to encourage prosecutors and police to work on cases.”
The private sector has to be proactive because white-collar cases often require extensive examination of documents, accounting records, and e-mails, along with time-consuming surveillance, and this resource-heavy work is being pushed aside out of necessity.
“There is a lot of triage going on in prosecutors’ offices across the country, where decisions are being made not to prosecute certain categories of offenses because the resources just aren’t there,” says Marquis. These public-private collaborative efforts pick up the slack for a law enforcement system that is hamstrung by inadequate budgets and stretched too thin to handle many lower-level crimes, he says.
“The public wants violent crime taken care of—the ax murderer, the rapist, the armed robber,” agrees Schrunk. “That’s where most of the resources are. White-collar crime is one that public agencies very often don’t have the time or the resources to handle.” “The trend will be more cooperation between communities and law enforcement. To me this is an extension of the community policing idea,” says Buck.
Public-private collaboration definitely works, but it is not a perfect solution. For example, Shriner notes that Wells Fargo has 23 regions nationwide where it could potentially assign a special task force to combat white-collar crime. Another problem is that the law enforcement officials often do not have what Shriner calls “management information reports”—that is, reports substantiating their level of effectiveness.
Another concern is whether banks are being asked to pay too much. Banks are already paying state and federal governments for protection. “Management says, what do we pay taxes for? Don’t we pay enough?” says Shriner.
And while the Weld County program has not had a high price tag, some of these efforts can be costly. In the past, law enforcement officials have solicited Shriner for up to $350,000 to fund their special task forces. In comparison, Weld County is getting a deal: the former agents they have hired—both of whom are expert witnesses who testify around the country for an hourly rate of $125—are coming on board for $25 per hour.
Schrunk said retired experts collecting a pension can afford such a cut-rate deal while offering in return a combination of experience and relative youth. “There’s a lot of law enforcement retirees who get out when they are just hitting their stride at 55 or so, and they have a lot of mileage left,” he says.
But in some cases, private funds can be used to get an effort going that will later be funded with public tax dollars. That was the case for the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, a public-private partnership that started back in 1997 when local retailers complained to District Attorney Bob Johnson that they were losing millions of dollars through fraud and other crimes.
Johnson, the D.A. for Anoka County, a bedroom community of Minneapolis and St. Paul, worked with retailers and bankers to start the task force. The city of Minneapolis chipped in part-time personnel to round out an initial working budget of roughly $100,000 per year.
The state legislature officially recognized the task force in 2001 and agreed to match private sector funding with its own. For the two years covering 2005 and 2006, the task force has a $1.5 million bankroll and a statewide reach.
Among the six investigators are federal law enforcement personnel, local police, and a representative of the postal system, which is concerned about stolen mail leading to identity theft. Johnson says the task force has a proven track record of successfully cracking cases, including several involving up to $2 million in theft and fraud.
“This is a significant evolution of law enforcement,” says Johnson. And it shows what can happen when the private and public sectors work together.
Robert Elliott is assistant editor at Security Management.