In Bal Harbour, a village that reported 34 criminal offenses and zero arrests during the first six months of 2012, a handful of police officers assigned to an elite unit each logged hundreds of hours of overtime last year, nearly doubling their salaries and boosting their pensions in a way the federal government has called inflated and abusive.
If a village has so little crime, then why are police officers putting in for so much OT?
The answer is that the officers were assigned to the departments Vice, Intelligence and Narcotics unit, whose members traveled the country, partnering with other agencies to investigate drug trafficking and money laundering far outside the villages borders.
When money was seized by the cops, it went to the federal government, which disbursed chunks of it back to local police departments involved in the operation.
The Bal Harbour unit, now under investigation by the Justice Department, became a cash juggernaut, helping grab millions from bad guys, and getting large piles of money back from the feds.
No. 1 on money list
In 2011, the small police department collected $5.1 million in federal forfeitures, more than any other law enforcement agency in Florida.
A healthy portion of those proceeds was funneled back into overtime $255,000 last year alone for six overtime-eligible officers within the VIN unit despite an explicit warning from the village attorneys office in January 2011 that the money could not be used for that purpose.
Some criminal justice experts have expressed amazement that a police department serving a village of about 2,500 residents would be engaging in money laundering and drug trafficking investigations all over the map.
Unless this is a town that is largely populated by Mexican cocaine dealers, then there is no justification, said Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. It sounds like a racket.
It sounds like these guys had their own little business running, and they had their own source of funding that they were creating, he said. A little private business tapping into federal asset funds. This had very little to do with the city and very little to do with policing.
Bal Harbour, an affluent, oceanfront enclave known for its speed traps and luxury mall, the Bal Harbour Shops, doesnt have much of a drug problem, or any other type of crime, according to statistics kept by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Of the 34 crimes reported during the first six months of 2012, 31 were larcenies and three were burglaries. There were no reported murders, robberies, rapes or car thefts.
What was accomplished by the VIN unit, besides generating dollars and overtime, is not clear from public records.
In three years of operations, members of the unit made no arrests related to money laundering, produced no investigative reports, and presented no cases for prosecution, according to the Justice Departments Office of Inspector General.
Police Chief Thomas Hunker, who started the unit in 2003, has been suspended by the village, with pay, until the investigation has run its course.
Hunker declined to comment for this story, but his criminal defense attorney, Richard Sharpstein, said the VIN unit officers earned their overtime traveling to other cities for investigations, conducting surveillance, picking up money and counting it.