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Police Make Few Changes in Year Since Evidence Audit

WLOS ABC 13, News 13,
BYLINE: Jon Ostendorff, News 13,

Asheville, NC

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- City leaders got a copy of an audit that showed a Police Department evidence room in disarray a year ago but officials didn’t start on many of the fixes it called for until just this month, a News 13 investigation found.

News 13, using the state’s open records law, got a copy of an internal report that outlines solutions to the nearly 50 recommendations in the Blue Line audit.

Some recommendations have been followed and some of the fixes to problems had already been made.

But in many cases, police department managers descried actions as “to be completed” or “to begin in July.”

Blue Line, a private company hired by former District Attorney Ron Moore in 2011 after problems surfaced in the evidence room, handed over its audit to the city in June, 2014.

It totals thousands of pages and cost the city $175,000.

Auditors found thousands of dollars, hundreds of drugs and dozens of guns missing, according to the report. Moore, when the audit was made public last year, said most of items were eventually found.

But his office did have to dismiss cases, current District Attorney Todd Williams said this week.

Williams took office in January. He joined incoming Police Chief Tammy Hooper on a tour of the evidence room this week.

It was his first visit as DA. Hooper’s first day was Monday.

Hooper said more needs to be done to improve the evidence room.

"I saw a lot of old evidence that needs to be gone through inventoried and purged," she said.

William said his office, so far, has had no problems with getting evidence from the Police Department.

Routine internal audits also have noted no problems, according to documents obtained by News 13.

"We certainly hope that those audits continue and should there be any discrepancies, or problems disclosed in an audit, that we're trusting that Asheville Police Department will immediately disclose that to us," he said.

That’s not what happened in 2011.

The department did not immediately tell the District Attorney’s Office about problems. An assistant district attorney discovered missing drugs while preparing for a case.

That discovery sparked an initial audit and then the massive Blue Line audit.

Then-Chief Bill Hogan retired soon after.

The department’s longtime evidence room manager, Lee Smith, eventually pleaded guilty to embezzling prescription drugs from the lockup.

The audit has 50 recommendations. The Police Department created a plan to address each one.

Some have been addressed. Among them:
- Using bar-code stickers on evidence.
- Storing drugs and money in sealed plastic bags
- Teaching officers the right way to submit evidence

But many fixes haven't been made. Among them:
- Buying better storage containers
- Fully training evidence staff on the computer system
- Teaching evidence staff how to handle money

And it will be weeks before police managers know whether their new objectives are being met.

The department won’t file its first progress report on the new goals until sometime after September, according to a statement from department spokeswoman Christina Hallingse.

Some fixes, like hiring two new full time evidence room staffers and three seasonal workers, have been budgeted for but were waiting on the new chief, Interim Chief Steve Belcher said last week.
Elected city leaders say, with Hooper finally on board, the department is moving in the right direction.

"The problems in the evidence room were severe,” said Vice Mayor Marc Hunt. “I was angry, like the whole community was, to learn of them but I believe we are on a great track now."

Asheville’s Fraternal Order of Police says officers are concerned about the evidence room today.

"It's been in the news for over a year and still it's not to the point where I think the citizens would be satisfied, and many of the officers are not satisfied, as to the way the property room is being run,” said FOP President Rondell Lance.

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