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Berkeley police evidence room still has problems

BYLINE: Frances Dinkelspiel
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Berkeley, CA

2011-01-13_INT_Berkeley police evidence room still has problems_01Five years after a sergeant from the Berkeley police department stole drugs out of the evidence and property room, prompting a series of investigations, the department has only taken minimal steps to improve the situation, according to a recent report by the city auditor, Ann-Marie Hogan.

Berkeley police processed 9,000 items in the year 2009, including $310,000 in cash and narcotics evidence with a street value of $1.5 million. But there are inadequacies in the way the department handles this evidence, which puts it at risk for theft or loss, Hogan noted.

Hogan’s audit is a follow-up to a 2006 report prepared by the California Commission on Peace Office Standards and Training (POST). That report noted a number of deficiencies in the way the police department collected and processed evidence and suggested 18 remedies to fix them. The Berkeley police department has only fully implemented six of the suggestions (with three just being done in the last few weeks), started work on four others, and done little on the remaining suggestions, according to Hogan, who will present her findings to the city council on Tuesday.

“We would have been happier if they had moved faster,” said Hogan. “One of the problems with property rooms in general is that police departments are focused on catching bad guys and emergencies. Cleaning up procedures, evidence, and paper work is just not as high a priority as cleaning up the streets.”

2011-01-13_INT_Berkeley police evidence room still has problems_02Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan, who took office in December 2009, did not return phone calls or emails on the subject. (see addition below) But in the month since Hogan’s report was issued, the police department completed three of the recommendations made by the POST report, the same number that had been completed in the previous four years.

Meehan and the City Manager’s office also submitted a time line for competing the rest of POST’s suggestions.

Update 4:25 pm: “I have directed staff to implement all of the recommendations and work with the Auditor’s office in doing so,” Meehan said in a e-mail to Berkeleyside. “We take the … (POST) recommendations for improving our Property and Evidence Room controls and procedures very seriously. We recognize the critical importance of being accountable to this process to ensure the integrity of our work and thus the community’s trust in us.”

Problems with the evidence and property room first surfaced in 2006, when officials discovered that Sgt. Cary Kent, who was in charge of taking and processing evidence for the Special Enforcement Unit, had stolen heroin and methamphetamines from 286 evidence envelopes over an 18-year month period.

Kent, a 20-year veteran of the force, resigned before he could be questioned, and pleaded guilty to grand theft and drug possession. He was sentenced to one year in jail, but served out his term with house arrest.

A few months after the discovery of Kent’s theft, another police officer was accused of stealing money from suspects. He resigned, and the District Attorney declined to press charges because there was not enough evidence.

The police chief at the time, Doug Hambleton, asked for the POST review, which was completed in late 2006. He also asked Hogan to follow up with an audit in a few years to make sure the police department implemented the findings, said Hogan.

“I think Doug Hambleton would have been surprised to see how long it took to make changes,” said Hogan.

The police department did make some important changes, according to the report:

* It created a check and balance system by handing authority for the evidence room to non-sworn officers. The Property and Evidence Room Unit now takes care of the evidence rather than the Special Enforcement Unit.

* It made the police budget manager a civilian rather than a lieutenant, and someone specially trained in budget matters is more likely to emphasize audits and other inventory controls, according to Hogan.

* Created a new policy that requires a third party random audit at narcotics destruction sites.

* Replaced all the door locks in the evidence room.

* Separated found property from property taken for safekeeping.

There are a number of recommendations that have not been implemented or fully implemented. Here is a partial list:

* The department has not done an inventory of firearms it has in evidence, but will complete this task, along with an inventory of all items in the evidence room, by May 31.

* The property room is not alarmed with motion detectors. The department is looking into the cost of these, as well as surveillance cameras, and will complete the investigation by May 31.

* The department has not placed a security rod through the ventilation duct. The department is not certain this is feasible but will investigate and report back by June 30.

* The department has not installed a security fence to separate evidence from property belonging to the Berkeley police department. Space limitations prevent this but the department has converted an adjoining office into a office supply room. This will cut down on the co-mingling of evidence and non-evidence, according to Meehan.

* The department has not started to store all firearms in boxes to prevent damage. The department is exploring the use of space-saving pouches that can hang on the wall. It complete this by April 30.

* The department has not standardized the packaging of evidence. It has moved to using clear plastic bags and has purchased scales. It will complete this transition by February.

* The department has not instituted an “evidence refusal form” where those taking evidence into the property room can reject it if it is not packaged properly. It will create a form by Jan. 31.

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