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Police eye better controls for evidence storage

The Pantagraph,
BYLINE: Edith Brady-Lunny |

Bloomington, IL

Bloomington Police Department crime scene unit technician Scott Mathewson, left, describes how the crime lab at the Bloomington Police Department works, on Friday, June 28, 2013. At right is former police public information officer Dave White. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

BLOOMINGTON -- Guns, drugs and cash are just some of the more than 60,000 pieces of evidence Bloomington police have to store, sometimes indefinitely, and the department is looking at a better way of keeping track of it all.

New evidence inventory policies under review by the Bloomington Police Department will bring the agency in line with other departments, according to R.T. Finney, the department’s interim chief.

Three people — evidence manager Carla Murillo and her two assistants — have authorized access to the storage area, which includes a vault where guns, drugs and money are kept.

While most of the items were collected as part of criminal investigations, some also are part of the police version of the lost and found. For example, police still are looking for the owner of a snow blower believed to have been left behind in a backyard by thieves several months ago.

Elements of the new policy will be implemented as the review process, which includes comments from the police union, moves forward, Finney said.

The current practice of limiting access and making certain a detailed log is kept of who handles evidence will be enhanced by the new inventory policy, he said.

“One of the things they’re missing is those auditing processes as part of the policies,” said Finney.

The last time a complete inventory was done was April 2011, which was in the midst of a debate between former evidence manager Amy Ward and former Police Chief Randy McKinley over evidence handling. She was fired two months later and recently filed a federal lawsuit claiming that she was terminated for complaining about alleged lapses in how evidence was stored and tracked.

The city has denied the allegations in the federal lawsuit. Finney said the public should have confidence in the system that records all access to the evidence area, including unsuccessful attempts to enter.

Among those who tried to get into the evidence room was Jeff Pelo, a former police sergeant who was convicted in 2007 of raping four women and stalking a fifth. His failed attempts to gain entry before he was a suspect in the assaults were used as evidence against him at his trial.

Finney said a complete inventory will take place after a new chief is hired in the next several months.

Murillo said if a staff member needs to see or obtain evidence, he or she must clear the request with her.

She said she has been working with McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers to dispose of items no longer needed for felony cases. Homicide and sexual assault cases involve evidence that must be kept indefinitely, she said.

“We’re stuck with what comes in with a case,” said Murillo.

Items too large to store in the cramped evidence room — bumpers from vehicles involved in crashes and a wheelchair from a homicide, for example — may go to the department’s crime lab.

At the McLean County Sheriff’s Department, the county auditor’s office performs unannounced checks of cash stored for criminal investigations. Evidence custodian Christine Swanzy is responsible for monthly inventory of property.

The court testimony of officers requires that they be confident that the chain of custody of evidence has been maintained, said Sheriff Mike Emery.

“It comes down to the integrity of the case. If you can’t prove who handled the property, it could have an adverse effect on the case,” said the sheriff.

Four checks are made during the course of the year at the Normal Police Department’s evidence area, including one comprehensive audit and three unannounced checks, said Assistant Police Chief Eric Klingele.

“The audits show the public we are making sure things are where they are supposed to be and we’re not losing or misplacing items,” said Klingele.

Evidence sits in a secured room at the Bloomington Police Department on Friday, June 28, 2013. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

Former Bloomington Police Department public information officer Dave White holds a set of brass knuckles in a secured evidence room at police headquarters on Friday, June 28, 2013. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

Bloomington Police Department's interim chief, R.T. Finney, speaks on Friday, June 28, 2013. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

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