Options weighed as Green Bay Police Department's ability to store items stretched

THE PRESS-GAZETTE, greenbaypressgazette.com
BYLINE: DOUG SCHNEIDER •

Green Bay, WI

2010-07-04_Options weighed as Green Bay Police Department_
Shelves are crammed full of evidence inside evidence storage room B on Thursday at the Green Bay Police Department. The room was originally the roll-call room. (Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette)

When the room used to store evidence at the Green Bay Police Department was full, the roll-call room became an evidence room.

Roll-call moved to the former lunchroom. The new lunchroom is in a former lobby, one flight up.

The physical-training room remains the physical-training room — but maybe not for long.

The reason behind all the change is a mountain of criminal evidence that is taxing the department's ability to store it, and threatening to outgrow its space in the basement of the 41-year-old building on South Adams Street. A number of factors are driving the growth, police say, including the requirement that DNA evidence be retained as long as the defendant is eligible to appeal his or her sentence.

"We're not saying this is a crisis … but if things don't change within a year or two it's going to be one," said Greg Urban, investigations division commander.

Police officials say a new evidence building, which they estimate would cost up to $560,000, would solve the problem. But they acknowledge that Green Bay taxpayers don't have the means to pay for one. The city has asked for federal help to fund the project; Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, has requested $560,000 as part of the fiscal 2011 federal budget.

Physical evidence is one of the pillars on which prosecutors build cases against criminals.

But evidence must be collected, catalogued and stored. And the latter takes room, and lots of it, in a city of 100,000 residents. Even in low-level cases, most evidence must be retained for at least two years after a case has ended, said Mike Gretzinger, a Green Bay police evidence custodian.

Making do

In more serious cases, such as crimes of violence, it's often considerably longer. A gun collected as evidence must be retained until cops get a court order allowing it to be destroyed. DNA evidence, because of recent change in the law, must be retained virtually forever, police say.

In the 12 months ended July 31, 2009. Green Bay's 18 detectives handled 2,387 cases. Each generates evidence that must be segregated by case number. Urban said the department collected, catalogued and stored 8,869 pieces of it last year.

Evidence, usually in boxes, lines shelves along the walls of locked rooms in the building's basement. A gumball machine, plastic totes teeming with prescription bottles, and other odd- or over-sized items rest on the linoleum nearby. Collections of street drugs, organized in boxes tagged with stickers and marked with handwritten case numbers, sit behind a second locked door in a humidity-controlled connecting room.

The department dedicated extra space early in the decade by rearranging how items were stored, Gretzinger said. In late 2006 and early 2007, they took over the former roll-call room and installed movable cabinets similar to those used in medical offices for storage.

Less than four years later, those cabinets are nearly full.

Sometimes, Gretzinger said, "You need roller skates to get from one (end of the room) to the other."

The options

The crowded conditions have not interfered with detectives' ability to investigate cases, Urban said. But he acknowledged that the situation could make it more difficult for an investigator to get his hands on key evidence as quickly as needed.

Expanding into the workout room, he said, would affect issues ranging from physical conditioning to morale.

And it wouldn't provide a long-term solution.

Police say the ideal answer is to build an evidence facility, likely a 7,000-square-foot building on city-owned land off North Quincy Street. Chief Jim Arts said the project could be done for about $550,000, and some work could be done by employees already on the city's payroll.

Mayor Jim Schmitt agreed the need is significant and said he's confident the city stands to get grant money.

"If the federal government is going to put the funding mechanism in place," he said, "we're going to work very hard to make sure that Green Bay gets our share."

The city has options other than building a new facility, should federal funds not materialize, Urban said. Green Bay could lease space elsewhere, or again reorganize how space is used within the building at 307 S. Adams. But, he said, something must be done.

"We're almost out of space," he said. "Within a year or two, we're going to be at capacity."

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