May 29, 2016
Buried inside the Lake Havasu City Police Department evidence room are tens of thousands of crime remnants, and only a handful of people have access to them.
There are guns from homicides, drugs confiscated during raids, money acquired from investigations and any other miscellaneous item gleaned from crime scenes.
The exact number of evidence specimens in the room is impossible to estimate as it grows every day, LHCPD Lt. Troy Stirling said.When drug evidence went missing in 2013 after former narcotics detective John Johnson allegedly removed and distributed methamphetamine he took from the evidence room, the department became more vigilant with access permissions.
"For me, it was a huge eye-opener, especially because we're a small agency and you don't expect something like that when everyone knows everyone," Stirling said. "I feel confident with our system now and I like how it's working so far."Stirling oversees the department's in-house evidence room and its limited staff of one full-time employee and two hand-picked volunteers."Our volunteers are a God-send to us because of the amount of work they put in," Stirling said. "They're researching and making sure it's OK for us to get rid of property – that's a whole investigation in itself."There's been a part-time position open for months, but none of the candidates could pass a background check or polygraph test, Public Information Officer Kirk Cesena said."It's a rigorous background check, just as we would do to an officer," he said.After the missing evidence investigation, Stirling said security measures were stepped up.
There are motion sensor cameras, an alarm system and a new deadbolt to secure the room after hours.City-wide technology improvements over the past five years have allowed for further precautions.
Now evidence personnel need a special key code for access – something that wasn't in place when evidence went missing. "Before the key card system, it was good, but you didn't have to have a number to input as well. You just had a key card, and the recording system to go back in time wasn't set up very well. Y
ou could only go back 30 days to see who had accessed the room via their key card," Stirling said. "With the new system, there's a lot better search features and we have camera footage that would ultimately go along with that."Every year an inventory is taken of the entire room, which is organized with a barcoding system, and special attention is paid to high-liability items. Stirling said an audit is done on the guns, money and drugs in the evidence room every three to six months."Those are the areas where more audits are conducted.
That's always been the case, but maybe not as frequent as it is now. We've stepped it up from years past," Stirling said.Many of Havasu Police evidence practices are pulled from guidelines provided by the International Association for Property and Evidence, an organization that performs audits and provides classes for evidence rooms in the U.S. and Canada.Joe Latta is the association's executive director.
He said of the nearly 100 audits he's helped with, no two evidence rooms were alike. No official mandates exist for departments to fall back on, and many officers who oversee evidence rooms weren't trained for that type of police work, he said."Probably 95 percent of police chiefs have never worked in a property room. Patrol, they've done it. It's no one's fault they don't know how to manage evidence if they've never been assigned to it," Latta said. "You only notice something is wrong when there's a problem, like what you saw in Lake Havasu City."