Asbury Park Press (New Jersey)
BYLINE: Sheila McLaughlin

Middletown, NJ

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was lying around. Crack cocaine, marijuana and other drugs from criminal cases were tossed haphazardly in a metal bin.

Then, there were the two fetuses in the freezer from two sexual assault cases dating years back.

That was the chaos in the Police Department's property room last year, according to hundreds of documents filed in a civil case in Butler County Common Pleas Court.

The police property room is the epicenter for evidence in criminal cases. Items are supposed to be properly tagged and stored to protect their integrity as evidence and avoid tampering allegations. Now, the incredible mess is at the heart of a fight between the city and the officer who was docked a day's pay - about $218 - because of it. Officer Kim Robinson fought the punishment, and an independent arbitrator told the city to pay her back.

Last month, the city filed suit to overturn that decision, and in doing so exposed a secret that nearly cost the police agency its coveted national accreditation.

Robinson had run the property room for almost eight years. Yet city officials admit she was not the only one to blame for the mess.

That's why she was suspended for only one day. The union contract allowed up to a three-day suspension. "The issues with the property room go beyond the actions or inactions of Officer Robinson," City Manager Judith A. Gilleland wrote in a memo last July. "There are limitations with the facility and with the levels of staffing."

Police Chief Greg Schwarber refused to talk to the Enquirer about the property room, saying the issues are related to pending litigation.

Robinson, 45, has been an officer in Middletown for 20 years. In addition to the arbitration dispute, Robinson has filed an age and sex discrimination lawsuit. That federal suit against the city, the police department and Schwarber alleges she was improperly passed over for a promotion to sergeant.

In the suit, Robinson claims the city suspended her over problems in the property room six months after she transferred to road patrol and only after she complained about being passed over.

Robinson, who worked mostly unsupervised, had run the property room since 1999. But the problems there developed over 17 years, one police memo says. Despite the mess, documents do not indicate that any criminals went free because of lost or improperly tagged evidence. City documents also show that a $20,000 shelving system was installed last year to help fix the mess.

The problems began to surface in October 2007 after Robinson requested the transfer to patrol and a new property room officer was assigned. The mess was further detailed that December by inspectors for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Among the problems inspectors found:

Based largely on these findings, the commission recommended suspending the police department's accreditation. The honor recognizes that the department meets high professional standards for policies and procedures. To some degree, it can help protect the agency against lawsuits.

In response, three Middletown officers spent the next four months sorting through more than 10,000 items in the overloaded property room. On May 8, 2008, the chief recommended disciplinary action for Robinson.

In his memo to the city manager, Schwarber cited a laundry list of serious problems:

Police later delivered the remains - in two small Styrofoam containers - to the Breitenbach-McCoy-Leffler Funeral Home in Middletown."They said they had been laying around in a freezer on a shelf," funeral director John Webster said. "I gave them a proper Christian burial." Robinson did not respond to requests for comment. She's still working road patrol and making about $56,600 a year while she sues the city. The city has not calculated how much it has spent defending against the discrimination allegations and trying to overturn the arbitrator's decision.

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