The Montclair Times, NorthJersey.com, northjersey.com
BYLINE: Eric Kiefer Staff Writer | The Montclair Times, firstname.lastname@example.org
Changing of the guard
Firearms like this Mossberg shotgun are among the thousands of items sitting on the shelves of the Montclair Police Department's evidence room. Staff photo by Adam Anik
In the basement of a building on Bloomfield Avenue, there's a room stuffed full of drugs, guns, and a several-thousand-piece assortment of what would normally be commonplace items ... if some of them weren't soaked in blood.
Few Montclairites are aware of the details of this room, and even fewer have been inside. But through a series of Open Public Records Act requests and interviews with several MPD officers, The Montclair Times managed to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the largest contraband repository in town: the Montclair Police Department's evidence room.
AN EVOLVING EVIDENCE ROOM
According to Deputy Chief Todd Conforti, the MPD evidence room hasn't changed much over the past decades.
It's just "managed differently" these days.
Until about a year ago, multiple MPD detectives handled the agency's evidence retention duties, Conforti explained. But recently, the MPD has begun using a fulltime evidence control officer, a protocol that seems to be working better, the deputy chief said.
Evidence Control Officer Ronald Redmond, a longtime MPD detective with previous property-room experience, is now one of only four department staffers who are allowed inside the basement storage area. In addition to another detective who works under Redmond, the police chief and deputy chief are the only other people with access.
"And there's really no reason for the chief or me to go in there," Conforti said.
To safeguard access to the room, the MPD has installed security cameras and a key fob system that tracks and timestamps any person who enters. Both of these are security features that weren't there 20 years ago, noted Redmond.
But extra hardware isn't the only way that the department's evidence room is changing.
Over the past few years, MPD officers and detectives have been issued several internal directives regarding changes to the department's evidence processing procedures, which The Times acquired via an OPRA request:
In 2011, Police Chief David Sabagh issued a memo to all police personnel that stated all evidence-bag packaging must have the officers' initials across the seal, an effort to "comply with a NJ State Police directive."
In February, Sabagh issued a memo which stated that "all seized narcotics evidence shall be photographed prior to submission into an evidence repository." In addition, the memo specified that narcotics evidence must be described in the preliminary incident report in a "manner that enables the reader to visualize the item without physically examining it," including identification of the drug type, quantity and any unique identifying characteristics, in addition to the size, shape and color of any pills or tablets.
In April, Conforti issued a memo which stated that all evidence - including cash seized for forfeiture - must be placed in the basement repository.
"The door slot to the Narcotics Office shall no longer be used as an evidence repository," Conforti's memo stated.
What was the inspiration for these memos? According to Joe Latta, a retired police lieutenant who is now executive director of the International Association for Property And Evidence, a nationally recognized accreditation agency that specializes in evidence rooms, property-room policies are often developed in response to some sort of incident.
"Frequently, police write policies around mistakes," Latta told The Times, adding that he was speaking in general and couldn't comment on the MPD's specific reasons for issuing the above memos.
"I know what you're getting at," Conforti told a reporter from The Times when asked whether the memos were in reaction to any incidents. "All I can say is that this is a direction that we've always wanted to go in ... it's complicated."
Conforti and Redmond declined further comment on the subject.
Last year, not counting "found" property such as lost wallets, the MPD seized 310 pieces of evidence, exactly the same amount of items as the year before, according to the 2013 Montclair Police Annual Report.
But if you ask how many items are currently in police possession, it's a question that nobody can answer ... the MPD doesn't conduct audits or inventories of its evidence room. Craig Hartley, executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), told The Times that maintenance of an evidence room, including the audit/inventory process, is a chronic problem for almost any police department.
According to Hartley, CALEA requires a variety of regular evidence room audits as part of its accreditation standards:
• Semi-annual inspections by the officer in charge of the evidence room
• Full audits whenever authorized evidence room personnel changes
• Annual audits by a department supervisor "not directly involved in the control of the evidence unit"
• Unannounced inspections at least once a year, directed by the police chief or department CEO
"Do I feel they're important? Yeah, they're important," Conforti told The Times when asked why the MPD doesn't conduct audits or inventories of the evidence room. "But I don't know what else to say about that."
Currently, the MPD attempts to confirm the accuracy of its inventory when it does property destruction, said Conforti.
"When [Redmond] goes through the evidence, he's inventorying it right there ... he's listing each piece," Conforti told The Times. "And we're doing that at a fairly higher rate than we used to. Since this new unit has become more of a fulltime thing, we're able to keep up on it more than we have 10 years ago."
Conforti noted that audits and inventories are expensive and time-consuming.
"People assume that their local police department has the capabilities that they see on TV," he told The Times. "That's just not the case. And most of it comes down to money ... money, money, money."
This article is the final part of a series. Previous articles were published in the Nov. 6 and 13 issues.
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