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Evidence manager has seen it all

Iowa City Press-Citizen (Iowa)
BYLINE: Lee Hermiston

Iowa City, IA

Unfathomable amounts of drugs, countless smoking devices, thousands of weapons ranging from assault rifles and handguns to ninja swords and barbaric maces. And exactly one shrunken head.

It's all part of the job for Iowa City Police Department evidence manager Dave Harris. "I'm so callous to what we bring in that nothing surprises me anymore," Harris said.

For the past 12 years, Harris has been the man in charge of taking the items that officers seize, from crack pipes to big-screen TVs, and storing them in Iowa City's two evidence rooms. One is a small room in the Iowa City Police station, dubbed "the cave," where paperwork is stored and Harris has his office. The other is an 8,000-square-foot storage area at an undisclosed location that stores the drugs, guns, bicycles, street signs and other things that officers seize.

Harris estimates that there are more than 100,000 items of evidence between the two locations, with some dating back to the 1980s."And I'm in charge of every single one," he said.

Harris' career with the Iowa City Police Department started in August 1966, when he was hired as a patrol officer. For the first year or so, Harris pulled double-duty. From 3 to 11 p.m., he was assigned to catch bad guys as a patrol officer; from 7 a.m. to noon, he was in charge of catching and feeding stray dogs and cats as the city's only animal control officer.

"The city only had one person that did it and that was me," Harris said with a laugh.

But after 19 years and three back surgeries, one that resulted from chasing down a man from the Johnson County Courthouse after receiving a life sentence, Harris had to retire. Harris called his retirement a "heart-wrenching situation." "As an officer, you're part of a fraternity," he said. "When you're not an officer, you are no longer a part of that fraternity."

Fortunately, Harris' retirement didn't even last a day. On the day he officially retired, Harris was hired as a dispatcher. Harris stayed in that position until 1991 when he became a community service officer. In 1997, he became the evidence manager. "I've always been a cop," he said. "I probably will always be a cop. I like to keep my hands involved in it."

Police Chief Sam Hargadine said Harris' experience is a valuable asset to the police department.

"He's got that long-term experience opinion that I value, and I know others do, too," Hargadine said.

Every piece of evidence that comes in is documented and stored by Harris until a criminal case is finished. Homicide-related evidence is kept indefinitely in the event a case is appealed, Harris said. Harris said some evidence is re-turned to its owner at the conclusion of a case. The rest is destroyed. Harris said drugs are incinerated at local funeral homes. Guns are chopped up by the Division of Criminal Investigation.

The most common pieces of evidence are drugs and drug paraphernalia, Harris said. Between the street crimes team and the Johnson County Multi-Agency Drug Task Force, Harris said he has taken in virtually every drug known to man. "If I don't have it, they haven't made it yet," he said.

Harris said his position also gives him a unique outlook on the crime scene in Iowa City. For instance, if Harris files crack cocaine on a regular basis, he can discern there's a larger presence of the drug in the community.

"I believe that evidence can pretty well dictate what's going on in your city," Harris said.

With almost 43 years of police work under his belt, there's probably nothing out there that could surprise Harris. Nonetheless, Harris said retirement isn't something he's considering just yet.

"The day I don't enjoy coming to work is the day I retire," he said. "That day hasn't come yet."

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