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Pinal Sheriff's Office to improve evidence storage

The Arizona Republic,
BYLINE: Lindsey Collom and Caitlin McGlade - The Arizona Republic

Pinal County, AZ

An independent audit of the Pinal County sheriff's property-and-evidence unit details years of mismanagement and overstuffed storage units with the potential to harm prosecutions.

More than 300 pages of the report by California-based Evidence Control Systems Inc. highlighted problems with the way evidence was handled, detailing a bloated, haphazard inventory of items that should have been destroyed, sold or returned to rightful owners.

Auditors estimated the inventory in excess of 300,000 items accumulated over more than 30 years. The report said that between 65 and 80 percent of the inventory could be discarded.

"It's like a big junk closet," said Elias Johnson, a Sheriff's Office spokesman. "It looks like an episode of 'Hoarders.' "

Sheriff's officials say the audit highlighted long-standing issues from previous administrations, and they called it a "hot potato" left in the hands of Sheriff Paul Babeu. Tim Gaffney, the sheriff's communications director, said Babeu became aware of problems in January 2009 when a precinct sergeant was accused of not logging seized property into the unit.

"We didn't realize how severe the issue was," Gaffney said. "We didn't know three days into office whether this was an isolated incident or whether this was much larger."

Following three internal investigations - one by the Sheriff's Office and two by outside contractors - Babeu requested an independent audit in July 2010 to "identify all of the issues needing correction in our property and evidence section."

What Evidence Control Systems found during an inspection Dec. 6-10 was an understaffed unit responsible for a main warehouse that was stocked beyond capacity, and several ancillary storage areas and substation evidence-collection sites with inadequate security.

Auditors found urine samples - some saved long past the corresponding cases' adjudication - stocked in 60 spots without any designated shelf or bin in the refrigerator where they sat. Personal belongings, held for safekeeping after the original owners were arrested, sat collecting dust in the storage rooms. Auditors found methamphetamines last reviewed in October 2008 that had yet to be destroyed.

More than 25 percent of the inventory had not been logged electronically, and the unit was three months behind in documenting new items. Of the files that had been generated, some didn't match with physical objects. Guns marked as destroyed were actually still at the armory. There was no record-keeping of money stored in the unit.

Improperly tracking items and money is no anomaly for evidence-storage rooms among law-enforcement agencies, said Joe Latta, director of the auditing company. Evidence Control Systems has audited 65 agencies in Canada and the U.S. and offers suggestions to clean up the mishaps and maintain order based on standards of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the International Property and Evidence Association.

Latta said many of the problems come down to staffing and the size of the budget for agencies everywhere.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office is "trying their hardest with the limited resources they have, and almost every department across the country has the same problems," Latta said.

Stockpiling old, useless evidence slows down the efficiency of agencies and makes it more difficult to locate materials for existing cases, he said.

In a random search, auditors selected a firearm logged in a computer and hunted for it in storage. They had to sort through 300 boxes before they found it. Auditors took random samplings of 20 packages at one storage location and found that 75 percent of the materials were eligible for review, meaning the statute of limitations on the cases had expired or the cases had likely been closed. Auditors concluded that the source of this problem often started with the officer in charge of the case.

Ideally, officers would give the owners of property that was being held a receipt and tell them they had a certain number of days to claim their belongings or they would be disposed of. But auditors learned that many of these receipts were not issued. Auditors also learned that deputies often would not respond to requests from evidence technicians to review objects for potential disposal. The report cited one example in which an evidence technician tried to reach one deputy via e-mail twice over the course of about a month and got no response.

Sheriff's officials are reviewing the audit and formulating an action plan to rectify issues, Gaffney said. The hiring of three new evidence-unit technicians is already in the works, he said, and the department plans to submit a funding proposal to county supervisors to hire four more techs and purchase unspecified equipment to comply with audit recommendations.

Meanwhile, the department has installed more secure lockers for evidence storage at its substations, and employees on light duty have been helping unit staff review inventory and dispose of items.

Both Babeu and County Attorney Jim Walsh say they are not aware of any issues raised in the audit that have affected any past or current cases. But the possibility "is real, and this is why we are trying to address it now so no victims will ever be denied justice," Babeu said.

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