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City police make big dent in messy pile of evidence,

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), FIRST EDITION
BYLINE: BY CHRISTINE BYERS

St. Louis, MO

found items Massive organizing effort began after audits found $22,000 was stolen and $33,000 could not be located.

ST. LOUIS - A gun stolen in 1972 was recovered by St. Louis police in 1984. It wasn't returned to the owner for about 25 years, until Lt. Joe Hecht took the job of straightening out the neglected evidence room.

The gun's owner "couldn't believe it" when police called, Hecht said.

Hecht has experienced some disbelief, too, since being - using his term - "sentenced" to the Property Custody Unit in April 2008.

Through the years, the collection of evidence, and found property turned in by residents, had piled up into a disorganized mess - eventually eating 23,000 square feet of the department's six-story downtown headquarters.

The housekeeping disaster led to some of the department's recent black eyes, including an investigation that found officers had taken 2006 World Series tickets held for evidence in scalping cases, used them and then put them back in the evidence room.

In 2007, internal and state audits found that $22,000 had been stolen from evidence bags and $33,000 was classified "unable to locate."

Hecht remembers thinking: "How am I going to fix this mess?"

"It was a nightmare," Hecht recalled. "If you don't clean your basement for a few years, what happens? That's what I walked into here."

Other police departments have struggled with managing evidence and property custody rooms. Lack of oversight has cost police executives from across the country their jobs and forced them to face criminal charges when guns, drugs and money went missing.

Sloppy evidence-keeping also can open prosecutions up for scrutiny from defense attorneys who may question whether the quality of evidence has been compromised in storage.

Making things worse, the need for storage space will grow, as DNA technology advances and new laws extend the statutes of limitation for sexual assaults, homicides and even burglaries.

One of the earliest changes in St. Louis was shifting responsibility away from the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, so the people submitting the evidence are not in charge of it, said Lt. Col. Paul Nocchiero, who now oversees the unit.

"It's not crime-fighting on the streets, but it's what got every major police department in trouble," Nocchiero said.

"Management didn't pay attention through the years because we were crime fighters and understaffed, but we got to a critical mass, and the audit of the drug vault spurred us to take action."

Evidence piles up
Keeping and inventorying evidence can seem like a pointless job, when only about 1 percent of it ever gets used in the courtroom, Hecht said.

"But when they need it, we better have it," he said.

When he arrived, the department had already moved much of its property room to the vacant cells of the former holdover. Evidence bags were falling out of shelves, and piled on prisoner bunks.

About 500 abandoned bikes lined the hallways. Car seats, tires, tables, golf clubs, skateboards, piles of scrap metal, newspaper stands, guitars, an ATM machine, air conditioners, electronics and more were tucked into a labyrinth of rooms, making the first three floors of headquarters look like a garage sale.

Tucked in with the random found property items were rape kits and evidence from homicides and other crimes - including money.

The department hired Joe Latta, of Evidence Control Systems Inc., in 2008 for about $26,000 to audit and recommend changes. Latta learned warehousing and inventory management in the grocery business before becoming a police officer on the West Coast. He retired and founded the consulting business.

Latta, who has worked with hundreds of departments, said St. Louis' problems ranked somewhere in the middle: "It was just dysfunctional," he said.

Since then, progress has been slow but steady. Hecht said he and his team of eight commissioned officers and two civilians still have 113,000 items to sort through. That doesn't count 25,000 pieces of ballistic evidence that include the oldest items in the unit: bullets from 1949.

The team has so far analyzed 60,000 items, organizing them by the type of crime and date, sorting them into stackable crates and filing them on shelves. "What used to take hours, even days, to find now takes minutes," said Lt. Scott Gardner.

Thousands of guns once piled on top of one another are now stored in individual boxes with bar codes. The department has asked the circuit attorney's office for permission to destroy hundreds of guns no longer needed for evidence.

"For many years, it was, 'Hold on to everything, then we don't have to worry about being asked for it,'" Gardner said.

Cameras monitor every move, and the video is audited monthly. No person, regardless of rank, has all the codes to pass the layers of new security in the vaults.

"In the police business, lieutenants don't tell lieutenant colonels what to do, but Lt. Hecht told me, 'Hey, Colonel, you can't go any farther than that until you sign the book,'" Nocchiero said.

'A clearinghouse'
Gardner said the department's decision in 2009 to refuse most found property has cut the annual load to 9,000 items from 26,000. "We were a clearinghouse, a black hole. We would take, keep and hold everything. Eventually we reached a critical mass." Under new use of an old law, police check found property for indication of ownership and then turn it back to the finder.

The process of emptying the evidence room has led to some interesting reunions.

Last week, Sgt. Joe Lehman opened a bag labeled "Owner Unknown." Inside, he found about $120 and the owner's identification and the title to his jet ski. He called the man, who said he lost his wallet at Fair St. Louis in 2004. He came to get it that day.

Since October 2009, the property room unit has returned about $19,000 in cash to 35 people. (This is separate from recent refunds of money from the department's Asset Removal Unit.)

About 98 percent of the time, the rightful owners of property cannot be found. In those cases, police petition the court to dispose of it, or auction it off online. (Claims can be made online at slmpd.org; auctions are at propertyroom.com.) Previously, there was no process in place to purge the items, Nocchiero said.

"It probably costs us more in time to track down the owner of the tools than the tool is worth, but we have an obligation, we have a responsibility to do it," he said. "What if they're your tools, your lawn mower?"

LONG-TERM planning

Though the progress is encouraging, Nocchiero said he needs about $1 million to continue. He would like to see the unit run entirely by civilians.

Latta said civilians tend to make careers of property room duties, whereas police are frequently rotated. And, he noted, "Cops steal more from evidence rooms than civilians, historically speaking."

He rattled off examples from around the country of police executives brought down by evidence thievery or mismanagement. "In some departments, the property room is considered the penalty box: If you can't perform in field, we'll put you in the property room," Latta said.

In St. Louis, that stigma didn't seem to hold true during the last Police Board meeting. Hecht, Gardner and Nocchiero got a resounding round of applause for their efforts. Nocchiero cited a collaboration among the circuit attorney's office, information technology staff, legal department and Police Board.

"We're talking about 35 years of history, of evidence," Nocchiero said. "We've made great strides in correcting the problems, but we have a couple more years left."

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International Association for Property and Evidence
"Law Enforcement Serving the Needs of Law Enforcement"
www.IAPE.org
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