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Police evidence: Comprehensive inventory control is key to cracking cases

Trib Total Media, Inc,
BYLINE: Karen Zapf, Staff Writer
Link to Article

Plum, PA

Plum police learned just how important it is to properly handle evidence.

A resident came to the police station in March 2002 to retrieve his Colt .45-caliber pistol that police had confiscated from him two years earlier, when they served him with a protection-from-abuse order.

As the department called in the state police to investigate the missing gun, a Plum officer discovered about 35 pounds of marijuana was missing from evidence.

"It was a sickening feeling," said Lt. Jeff Armstrong who took charge as the department's evidence custodian in early 2002 and worked to correct the flawed system. "I said, ‘Here we go again.'"

Evidence handling and, in particular, keeping track of where evidence is at all times, can make or break cases for police departments.

Green Tree police Lt. Chad Rannigan said evidence must be handled properly starting with the first officer at the scene of a crime or a case might be lost when it goes to court.

"The collection of physical evidence begins with the initial officer, and the integrity of the chain of evidence is crucial in the successful prosecution of cases in today's criminal justice system," said Rannigan, who is the evidence custodian for that department.

"Evidence is a police department's biggest liability," Rannigan said. And in my experience, you want to have the least amount of opportunity for people (officers) to have access (to evidence)."

Rannigan conducts an evidence audit every six months and a comprehensive inventory once a year.

Under the Green Tree police system, when officers bring evidence into the department, they package it according to whether it is going into the department's evidence area or to the county crime lab, Rannigan said.

Officers place the evidence in a locker, remove the numbered card and place it in Rannigan's mail slot. Officers place the key into the key-drop area of the two-way locker.

Rannigan accesses the items from inside the evidence room.

"I am the only one who has access to the panels inside," Rannigan said.

The room also contains a safe to store recovered money.

Rannigan signs for evidence that is taken out and signs again when it comes back to the evidence room.

"You must have documentation in writing," Rannigan said.

The evidence room is monitored by a surveillance camera, Rannigan said.

In the midst of dealing with the missing evidence in Plum in 2002, Armstrong, who worked with a couple of other officers, decided to relocate the evidence room from an office area that contains a window to an area adjacent to the department's lockup.

"The evidence room was a nightmare," Armstrong said. "There was no record-keeping and no rhyme or reason as to where things were. And there was no rhyme or reason (as to) when things were destroyed."

Today, officers place evidence, including identifying information, in a locker outside the evidence room.

Armstrong and Officer James Miller, the only officers with access to the room, put a bar code on it and place it on shelves in the evidence room. The room also contains a safe for money.

Plum police have had no evidence go missing since the incidents in 2002, Armstrong said.

The marijuana has not been located, Armstrong said.

The state police charged Plum police officer Andrew McNelis in connection with the missing weapon. McNelis later pleaded guilty in federal court to attempting to mail the handgun back to the owner. McNelis was fired and sentenced to probation.

Armstrong said police returned the gun to the owner.

Shaler police Detective David Benko lives by a few rules of evidence handling.

"It is relatively easy to do," said Benko, who has been the department's evidence custodian for a quarter of a century. "You have one evidence officer, one lock, one key and one room."

"I have never lost a piece of evidence in 25 years," Benko said.

The Shaler police department's 12-foot-by-40-foot evidence room contains three categories of items — firearms, general evidence and drugs, Benko said.

Money is stored separately in a safe.

The evidence is categorized by the year it was recovered and the case number.

Benko in general keeps evidence four to five years.

Benko and other officers interviewed also follow the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office evidence destruction guidelines.

DNA evidence generally should be kept 75 years, said Tom Swan, deputy district attorney who has worked in the evidence area for 15 years.

Drug evidence typically is destroyed after the offender's sentencing.

Firearm destruction is handled on a case-by-case basis.

"You have to find out if the gun is stolen, find the owner and find out if they can get it back," Swan said.

Also, the district attorney's office collects firearms from departments about once a year and destroys them.

"In the last four years, we've collected 10,000 guns," Swan said.

Also, drugs are collected and are incinerated.

The Baldwin police department has an evidence room and a refrigerated area for blood samples and rape kits.

Chief Michael Scott and evidence clerk Lynnette Marriner have access to the evidence room. Items, mostly guns, drugs and money, are categorized by case number, and a surveillance camera monitors the room, Scott said.

The room also contains a safe for recovered money.

"I have the access code to it (the safe)," Scott said.

The chief said one of the most unusual items in the evidence room is a mayonnaise jar that the robber of a Sunoco gas station was observed on camera picking up and placing down prior to the robbery.

The robber was dressed like Superman and wearing pajama bottoms. A suspect is awaiting trial..

Baldwin typically follows the district attorney's office guidelines for preservation and destruction of evidence though sometimes, it's beneficial to hold on to items, Scott said.

"I'm reluctant to destroy things," Scott said. "Some things resurface."

Baldwin police recently bought an incinerator to dispose of drug evidence.

"We'll be advertising for residents to bring their prescription medications to the borough (for incineration)," Scott said.

Officers with the Monroeville police department spent many hours planning the evidence room that measures about 10 feet by 30 feet before the new municipal building was constructed a decade ago.

Monroeville's evidence room has been a model for other departments.

Armstrong said he visited Monroeville in 2002 when he redid Plum's evidence area.

Just two of the department's 40-plus officers have access to the room.

Cpl. Jason Safar and Sgt. Ron McConnell are the only officers who can gain access to the room.

"Officers need (to complete) written requests to get evidence back out — mostly to go to court," Safar said.

The room contains firearms, drugs, a safe for money, evidence recovered from burglaries and lost items turned in to the department.

"We have a 90-day rule for (lost) items that are turned in," Safar said.

Safar said one of the most unusual items contained in Monroeville's evidence room is a Samurai sword.

"And last year, we had 27 bikes," Safar said. "We donated some to Goodwill."

The department conducts an inventory of the items once a year.

Swan of the district attorney's office said each police department, regardless of size, must have guidelines in place to handle evidence.

"Even the smallest department has to have an area secured in the police department for evidence," Swan said.

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