MISHANDLED MONEY, EVIDENCE PROMPTED PROCEDURE CHANGES

The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
BYLINE: LANCE BENZEL,

Colorado Springs, CO

An envelope containing nearly $3,000 went missing. An impounded motorcycle was given to the wrong person. A vehicle that should have been kept in case a murderer appealed his conviction was auctioned.

Those instances of evidence and property mishandling are among the missteps disclosed in Internal Affairs reports that police made available last month in response to a Gazette documents request.

Police say they moved swiftly to take corrective action after each problem came to light, mindful that any slip-ups in evidence collection and storage could spawn renewed concerns in the wake of a 2005 controversy in which thousands of pieces of evidence were prematurely destroyed.

"The Police Department's tolerance for missing items is zero," said Colorado Springs Deputy Police Chief Pete Carey.

A bundle of $2,900 in cash disappeared May 18, 2008, while an employee in the evidence room was handling unclaimed money that was due to be deposited in the city's general fund in accordance with city policy, according to an Internal Affairs investigation into its disappearance.

Surveillance video shows that the envelope containing the money fell off her desk. The video did not show where it landed, but investigators concluded that it fell into a trash can that was later emptied by a janitor.

The employee insisted she played no part in stealing the cash, and she passed a polygraph examination. The 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office reviewed the investigation and concurred there was no crime.

Police said they made changes to prevent similar mistakes, such as clearing a separate work space in another room for processing sensitive items. If cash, guns or drugs are being processed, two employees work side-by-side in isolation without a telephone, radio or other distractions.

Improvements were also ordered at the police impound lot after an audit discovered two mistakes from 2007, including a case from June of that year in which a 1988 Chevrolet Suburban that had been used as evidence in a murder trial was inadvertently auctioned to a seller who destroyed it.

The vehicle was supposed to be stored in case the conviction went to appeal.

In February 2007, a 2005 Honda motorcycle was given to the wrong person, but police were able to reclaim the bike once the error was discovered.

Both mistakes revolved around a mix-up in recording and displaying the vehicles' identification numbers, said Lt. Kirk Wilson, the police Internal Affairs supervisor. Police created a new supervisor position at the city impound lot and improved the way the lot is marked and data is stored.

The Police Department overhauled its evidence collection and storage procedures after the 2005 incident, in which more than 20,000 pieces of evidence in 9,133 cases were improperly destroyed during a clean-up effort.

As a result of the evidence purge, prosecutors dropped charges in three cases, and the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office announced that many other cases would be affected, including missing- person cases.

Police hired a new evidence supervisor and formed a cadre of officers to re-examine each piece of evidence in storage and ensure it was properly cataloged. Shelves were reorganized, and order was restored, police said.

"We don't (dispose of) anything unless we get a written authorization from the DA's office or written authorization from the officers involved," said Joe Kissel, the current evidence supervisor.

The missteps involving the cash and missing vehicles had little to do with the 2005 incident, police contend, and don't reflect the integrity of their evidence collection practices, which they described as "sound."

"These are isolated human errors," Carey said. "Unfortunately, when you deal with thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence, that's going to happen."

The Gazette learned of the recent errors from a 60-page document summarizing 21 Internal Affairs cases from 2007 and 2008. The summaries are the second batch of documents the newspaper received under a request it initially made in fall 2008.

The newly released cases involve a variety of policy violations and misbehavior ranging from an officer who kept hundreds of photos of scantily clad women on his patrol car computer to one who insulted Police Chief Richard Myers during a locker-room conversation with a colleague. Three officers tapped into databases for personal reasons, such as disputing an electric bill.

Police defended their handling of an Oct. 17, 2007, case in which a police officer showed up to an afternoon shift smelling of alcohol.

A DUI officer was called to investigate and determined his blood- alcohol content was 0.03. That's below the legal limit for alcohol- related driving offenses, but police are prohibited from drinking on duty.

Investigators estimated that the officer drank three to four servings of alcohol before coming to work. He wasn't allowed to go on duty, Wilson said.

Police refused to name the employees involved in the complaints, saying the nature of the violations did not justify exposing them to embarrassment. Officers were named in a previous packet of IA summaries the newspaper obtained.

Police said they devised a "balancing test" that weighs an officer's right to privacy against the public interest in making the names available. Officers are more likely to be named if their offenses happened in public view, Wilson said.

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