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Macon police told to tighten evidence handling

The Telegraph,
Link to Article

Macon, GA

Vague records, easy access drew auditor’s warning

A review of security at the Police Department’s evidence room found there was no way to tell who had been in the room, if all items there were being documented, or if anyone had changed the evidence record.

When she did a surprise cash count of money in the evidence room’s safe, city Internal Auditor Stephanie Jones found nearly $244,000 in confiscated funds that weren’t being tracked by the Finance Department.

Police Chief Mike Burns said he asked Jones to audit the department’s evidence procedures in December 2011.

“The review is requested every three years as part of our national accreditation,” Burns said via e-mail. “We are always asking for ways that may improve the operations of the police department.”

Jones started the task in February 2012, gave police her report April 5, and the police department responded with an action plan five days later. Burns sent the results to interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker June 15.

“According to the results, all items were accounted for,” Burns wrote in his memo to Walker.

But Jones’ report specifies that, although it’s vital to have good record-keeping and control of drugs, guns and money that will be used in prosecuting crimes, a walk-through of the evidence room yielded so little definitive information that she didn’t even call her report an audit.

“The review was performed instead of the requested audit because of the Internal Auditor’s first observation of the lack of critical controls within the control environment of the MPD’s Property and Evidence department,” she wrote.

An actual audit is yet to come, when new documentation measures are in place, Walker said via e-mail.

“We are asking our external auditors to closely review the operation as part of their audit,” he said. “The chief wants things to be tight.”

Jones reported that evidence logs and incident reports weren’t being completed, cash received wasn’t always verified with the officer who brought it in, and that all crime lab staff could enter, change or delete information in the evidence database without being tracked. In many areas there was a lack of dual control: a second person to check the accuracy of reports or presence of evidence, she wrote.

The crime lab has a door alarm, but with one generic password, Jones wrote.

“There was no documented evidence that password had ever been changed,” she said. “This risk of unauthorized entry is increased due to the volume of turnover experienced by the police department.”

The security system on the evidence room “was not serviced appropriately, so unauthorized personnel could enter “for an unknown time period,” Jones found.

The alarm company fixed that March 1, so now only crime lab staff, the chief and deputy chief have access to the evidence room. But there were no cameras in the evidence room, the safe combination there wasn’t changed despite staff turnover, and the confiscated cash within wasn’t properly managed, she found.

“There was a total of $243,969.82 in cash in the safe that has never been reported to the Finance Department,” Jones wrote.

The city deposits confiscated funds in a special bank account, but it was impossible to tell if the correct amount was being reported and taken to Finance for deposit, she said.

All of the money that can be moved has now been sent to Finance, Burns said.

“The money in the safe was for criminal cases where the actual seized drug money could be displayed in court,” Burns said. “We recently checked (each) individual case with the District Attorney’s office to see which cases still required the original money confiscated. Any other monies were put in the seized or converted confiscated account, depending on a judge’s order. All money is tracked by evidence logs and incident reports with copies sent to the appropriate courts.”

Walker said confiscated funds are budgeted separately and can legally only be used for certain police needs, as directed by the police chief.

Jones recommended several purchases and a long list of procedure changes.

“For example, funds taken into evidence have not been taken to Finance immediately after (being) taken into evidence or placed in bank bags for the last two years,” she wrote.

The procedures manual was last updated in September 2006, her report says. All alarms and access panels should be inspected monthly, and personnel should each have a private access code to allow tracking of who goes where. Items taken into evidence should be detailed in writing, and not accepted until the paperwork is complete, Jones reported. The ability to change computerized evidence records should be limited, more than one person should have to check the documentation, and more than one should be present when evidence is handled, she wrote.

Jones said the official evidence custodian should be the crime lab director or a sworn officer, not a regular civilian employee. That’s one of the few recommendations with which Burns disagreed. In his formal response he said many departments have civilian evidence custodians, but they have to pass background checks. Macon is hiring one now, and that person will get specialized training, he wrote.

Jones said police need to buy a new property and evidence database, install cameras in the crime lab, get a dual-entry evidence safe and a better alarm system, and pay for annual staff training.

Burns’ action plan says that all relevant policies are being reviewed, and that will be completed in September. In the meantime, some things have already changed or started being enforced, he said.

Cash amounts up to $1,000 are now put into locked evidence drop boxes, Amounts from $1,000 to $10,000 are put in the safe by an officer and lab technician. Amounts $10,000 and over require the crime lab director to be present, Burns’ plan says.

Rules about detailing evidence in writing are being monitored by superiors, and the crime lab will refuse to take evidence until documentation is complete, he said.

By mid-June, new software allowed restriction of database access and monitoring of changes.

A new camera is being installed in the evidence room, but assigning individual access codes “is still under consideration,” Burns’ response said.

The department is upgrading to a “secure badge” system this month, which will allow tracking of up to 255 authorized personnel, he said.

As for the safe, a locksmith welded on a new clasp that requires two people to access.

“The auditor stated this corrected the problem,” Burns wrote.

Most of the security upgrades will be paid for out of the police department’s current annual budget, he said.

“We hope to have the recommendations, (which) will further help in the auditing phase, completed by the end of July,” Burns said.

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