Behind closed doors:

The La Crosse Tribune, lacrossetribune.com
BYLINE: ANNE JUNGEN
Link to Article

La Crosse, WI

2010-07-19_Behind closed doors_image001
Shelves filled with evidence in the evidence room at the La Crosse Police Dept. Erik Daily

Highly secure police property rooms hold evidence

Proof of guilt can be found here, tucked inside manila envelopes stacked floor to ceiling. Cash hijacked from a bank. A DNA-laden rock used to smash a window during a burglary. Drugs seized from an apartment after an overdose. The La Crosse Police Department's property area is the official repository of evidence -methodically organized and preserved - gleaned from crime scenes, victims and suspects.

The 1,000-square-foot area on the first floor is monitored by two security cameras and sealed to all but three people: a sergeant, a lieutenant and a property clerk. Even the chief is prohibited from entering without supervision.

There's no reason for others to be in here, police Sgt. Randy Rank said.

"You want to keep who has access to a minimum," he said.

Within the property area, three rooms house more than 20,000 pieces of evidence, most sealed inside large envelopes filed in boxes and plastic tubs on six movable shelving units. This year alone has produced about 3,100 items from 1,200 cases.

Officers and investigators are responsible for collecting, packaging and labeling evidence before it's turned over to property clerk Kristine Gasch, who electronically logs and labels the item by case number.

The cache includes DNA samples, drugs, soda cans, clothing, knives, metal bats, surveillance videos and car parts. An arson case yielded a charred piece of roof.

"You name it, we got it," Rank said.

Three freezers hold dried and preserved biological evidence. Advances in forensic technology have increased the volume of DNA samples in the past several years, Rank said, and the department becomes responsible after processing at the state Crime Laboratory in Madison.

Confiscated drugs are stored in two old jail cells, in a small room with a fan to control odor and mold growth. Guns are kept in locked cabinets; cash also is stored separately.

Vehicles and other larger items are stored under the same security measures in a pole barn on city-owned property. The site also holds evidence from cold or older cases, including the 1954 investigation into Evelyn Hartley's disappearance.

Police annually collect 5,000 to 6,000 pieces of evidence. Properly maintaining and organizing each piece is crucial to building a criminal case, La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said.

"It's even more important they maintain the evidence in a way that allows it to be analyzed if necessary for fingerprints, DNA, or other scientific testing, for trial and sometimes even after a conviction to support an appeal," Gruenke said.

Audits are done annually on a small, random selection of guns, drug items, cash and other items, and the rooms can be inspected unannounced by the chief. No audit has raised a problem, according to police and Gruenke.

The department must regularly purge evidence to make room for new items. Evidence from unsolved homicide cases, however, must be saved indefinitely.

Misdemeanor case evidence can be purged 18 months after conviction. Felony case evidence can be disposed of 18 months after conviction as well with permission from the prosecutor.

The department also notifies defendants that property will be destroyed if they do not object.

DNA evidence is thrown out, while drugs are burned in an incinerator. Guns are destroyed at the state Crime Lab, officials said.

"We don't want them ending up back on the street," Rank said.




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The evidence room at the La Crosse Police Dept.

Photo Credit: Erik Daily

Growing evidence

La Crosse police collect thousands of pieces of evidence each year in misdemeanor and felony cases.




Year: Items collected

2006: 6,215

2007: 5,897

2008: 5,441

2009: 6,147




WHAT IS EVIDENCE?

Any tangible item police can gather from a crime scene or a victim can be considered case evidence. Those items can include anything from DNA and vehicles to digital records from security cameras and squad cars.

Source: La Crosse Police Department

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International Association for Property and Evidence
"Law Enforcement Serving the Needs of Law Enforcement"
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