Albuquerque not alone on evidence room woes

Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico), SECTION: EVENING; Pg. A1
BYLINE: Maggie Shepard / 823-3679

Albuquerque, NM

Internal control, training emerge as pivotal issues, says consultant with U.S. group

The Albuquerque Police Department evidence room isn't the only one in the nation prompting allegations of theft and mismanagement.

Evidence rooms in some of the nation's largest and smallest cities have had major problems. In a sampling from this month:

*A former Detroit police officer was convicted Monday of working with a civilian evidence room technician to steal and then sell more than $800,000 worth of cocaine by marking it as already having been destroyed.

*On March 11, an undercover narcotics agent with the Slidell (La.) Police Department admitted to stealing five Ecstacy pills from a bag of 20 pills he'd checked out to photograph for court.

*A 14-year veteran with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration was sentenced this month for stealing more than $100,000 cash from a New York evidence vault left open for computer repairs.

"That is the criminal element, and you'll have that," said Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence in Burbank, Calif.

But Latta says years of undereducated managers in low-priority positions overseeing inefficient checks and balances have made it easier for the criminals.

"This is a law enforcement issue, not an Albuquerque issue, he said.

Latta said education is the answer. He will travel to Albuquerque in April at the invitation of Police Chief Gilbert Gallegos to consult with evidence room manager Capt. Larry Sonntag and staff.

The Albuquerque evidence room has come under scrutiny after allegations by former workers there of mismanagement and negligence. The state Attorney General's Office has conducted a criminal investigation into allegations of theft, but results have yet to be released.

Latta would not talk specifically about his Albuquerque consultation but was willing to comment on national issues.

The root of evidence room problems nationwide is insufficient internal control policies, he said.

Internal controls, such as changing locks and keys after employees quit, using a two-person check-and balance-system when transporting evidence or requiring inventories of evidence bins before they are destroyed, can dramatically reduce the loss of evidence and opportunity for theft, Latta said.

In the past 25 years, only a few groups and teachers have provided training on evidence room security, but that is changing now, Latta said.

"Still, (evidence room managers) are trained as cops, not accountants," he said.

And with a job that is all about accounting and tracking, people trained in on-the-street police techniques haven't honed the skills necessary for evidence room tasks, he said.

"No one gets into law enforcement to take care of stuff," he said.

Departments generally place evidence rooms low on the priority level, Latta said.

"You hear citizen complaints all the time but not a lot from the evidence room. It is quite often not a priority until it becomes a problem," Latta said.

While that might be a head-ache, or worse, for police officials, public scrutiny of problems can lead to more secure evidence rooms, he said.

But the fact that other police departments are dealing with evidence control issues doesn't comfort Sonntag, Albuquerque's evidence room manager.

"I take no consolation in the fact that our experience is not unique. I don't want to use that to minimize the importance of us accomplishing the re-establishment of the integrity of the evidence room," Sonntag said.

Sonntag said he is looking forward to consulting with Latta.

Sonntag oversees about 1 million pieces of evidence in his warehouse, which also serves the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department. Latta said that is a large amount of evidence for a city of Albuquerque's size.

Latta said he is ready to share information that can make the evidence room more secure.

"(Managers) just don't know there is another way," he said. "Departments have to change to make the evidence room important and not something that is just there."

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International Association for Property and Evidence
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