Drug disposal procedures tightened at Savage PD

Savage Pacer, swnewsmedia.com/savage_pacer
BYLINE: ALEX HALL

Savage, MN

Report from 2014 found evidence of tampering

2015-12-12_Drug disposal procedures tightened_01
Savage Police Department File photo

The Savage Police Department made changes to procedures for its Take it to the Box safe drug disposal program after a Washington County Sheriff’s Office investigative report found that a sealed bag containing drugs showed evidence of tampering late last year. A December 2014 audit of the Savage PD property room also found that prescription pills were missing.

The audit, which was conducted in December 2014, found that there were 192 pills missing from one piece of property, as well as 260 pills missing from another piece of property. The report noted that those pills were not missing as of the department’s then-most recent audit in August 2013. The audit also notes two instances in which there was evidence of tampering. Information identifying the types of pills missing was redacted from a report provided to the Savage Pacer.

The 192 pills and the 260 pills that were missing belonged to the same case file, according to Savage Police Chief Rodney Seurer. He also said the pills had been taken into evidence by Savage police who were responding to a medical call, and that the pills were not being used for evidence in a criminal case.

The Savage Police Department is not the only law enforcement agency in Minnesota to experience issues with its evidence room in recent months. Earlier this year, an inventory audit of the Carver County Sheriff’s evidence room found 80 discrepancies involving 16,000 pieces of evidence stored in the room at the Sheriff’s Office in Chaska, and that 21 pounds of marijuana were missing. Also this year, a former supervisor in the Metro Transit Police Department’s property and evidence room was charged with stealing money from the room where she worked. More recently, Washington County officials discovered that cash, guns and drugs were missing from the evidence room at the Newport Police Department.

PROCEDURAL CHANGES

Seurer told the Pacer that some changes have been made to Take it to the Box procedures within the past year. For instance, there are four keys needed to open the locked box – which is located in city hall’s lobby – and two officers are required to open the box. Officers who had access to the box would have a set of two keys. All of the keys used to be the same, but two of the four locks were changed in the last year, so now the officers in charge of the box have different sets of keys – essentially ensuring that two people are present to open the box.

The receptacle also used to contain just a thick, plastic bag that stored the drugs, which officers would remove, seal, initial, then place into a plastic bin, which was also sealed and initialed. There is now a box inside the receptacle that holds the plastic bag, and officers now seal the box (as well as the bag) instead of moving the bag to a plastic bin. Seurer said the bins would tend to bend, which could cause the seals on the bin to break. Seurer said the box is sturdier, thereby making it easier to tell if there was tampering, as opposed to an accidental breaking of the seal.

However, when asked if a large hole in the bag that was looked at by Washington County investigators last year could have been caused by accident, Seurer said it could not have been.

Once a container is sealed, if it can’t immediately be taken to the Scott County Sheriff’s Office (which oversees the program), a case number is created for the box and it is stored in the guns, drugs and money room, which is a separate locked room inside of the evidence room. After delivering the containers to the sheriff’s office, the containers are then taken to an incinerator facility in Mankato.

Seurer also said evidence room procedures and security measures were already enhanced a few years ago following an audit by an independent accounting firm in 2011. Seurer said the department did “very well” in that audit, and that the only discrepancies were some pieces of evidence being placed on wrong shelves. However, the firm did recommend some additional security measures, such as adding more surveillance cameras, including cameras in the evidence room and the guns, drugs and money room. The department did add more security cameras, which have night vision capabilities, and it also implemented a dual-locking system for the evidence room doors.

Also following that 2011 audit, the department began a move to a bar coding system in the evidence room, which would replace its paper system. Due to the amount of staff time required to log old evidence into the new bar coding system, officials decided to only place evidence from the last few years into the new system.

“We knew it was going to be a task to take 20-plus years and put it all into a bar coding system,” said Seurer.

However, within the last year, the decision was made to enter all of the evidence room’s property into the bar coding system. Seurer said it will save time in the long-run, making it easier to track down property and complete inventory audits, and that it adds to the transparency of the department.

“It’s going to save a lot of staff time, plus it adds to the integrity of the system that’s already in place,” he said.

INVESTIGATION

According to a Washington County Sheriff’s Office investigative report, an investigation into the Savage PD’s evidence room was initiated following an incident involving an off-duty Savage police officer in November 2014. The investigation centered around the officer’s conduct inside the Savage PD’s evidence room.

After learning of the incident involving the officer in November 2014, the Savage PD immediately placed the officer on paid administrative leave. Due to the conflict of interest, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was then asked to conduct an investigation into the officer’s conduct.

Savage Police Capt. Bruce Simon also began reviewing surveillance footage from the Savage PD evidence room immediately after receiving the report. Simon told investigators that in one instance, surveillance footage allegedly showed the officer enter the guns, drugs and money room with all of the lights off, and that the officer appeared to be “feeling around” for items, according to the Washington County report. The officer did not sign in on the paper log in that instance, which was required.

Another video clip allegedly showed the officer access the guns, drugs and money room and remove an envelope, according to the report. The officer later put the envelope back, but when Simon went back to check on it, he found that drugs and other evidence was missing from it. The contents of the envelope were later found on a shelf in the evidence processing room. Simon also said there were several instances where the officer allegedly would access the evidence room while off-duty and not in uniform, according to the report.

The report states Simon also said that based on surveillance footage, he believed there were two incidents in October 2014 where the officer attempted to access already-sealed Take it to the Box drug bins.

In one of the incidents, the officer allegedly removed a drug bin from the evidence room twice in one day, and returned it to the evidence room both times. Simon said there would have been no reason for the officer to remove the bin from the evidence room. That bin was still in the evidence room at the time of the investigation, and Simon showed Washington County detectives that the bin appeared to have been opened and resealed, and that another officer’s initials appeared to have been forged on the seals, according to the report. There was also a large hole in the side of the bag that had been covered in tape, and empty pill bottles were found in the bag. One officer later told detectives that if a Take it to the Box bag were ever to rip open, proper procedure would be to place it in a second bag – not to tape it up. That officer told investigators after viewing photos of the bin in question that the bin had “clearly” been tampered with, according to the investigative report.

Ultimately, investigators were unable to determine if the officer was responsible for the pills missing from the evidence room.

While on leave, the officer being investigated did not respond to messages from Police Chief Seurer, according to the report. The officer resigned in December 2014 while the investigation was still ongoing. The officer also refused to participate in an interview with detectives unless it was off the record, to which the detectives would not agree. The officer eventually submitted a four-page letter to investigators, which did not contain any admissions.

The officer was eventually charged in March 2015 with fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance in Scott County District Court in relation to an incident that occurred outside the police department on Nov. 7, 2014. The officer received a stay of adjudication in April and five years of probation. The officer was not charged in relation to any alleged misconduct in the evidence room.

“The Savage Police Department has high standards and expectations for all staff, including its officers. Allegations of any misconduct are taken seriously, and the department is committed to conducting internal investigations whenever it is warranted,” Seurer said. “In this case an internal investigation was started following a criminal allegation involving one of our officers, and the investigation ended up in the officer’s resignation. The internal investigation was not conclusive.”

Seurer also said he did not dispute the findings of the Washington County investigators’ report.

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