Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin), FIRST EDITION
SECTION: FRONT; Pg. A1
BYLINE: By KAREN RIVEDAL
Fort Worth, TX & Madison, WI
PROCEDURE FOR CHECKING OUT EVIDENCE HAS BEEN TIGHTENED, AND OTHER MEASURES ARE LIKELY.
A few years ago the police department in Fort Worth, Texas, had a problem with the chronic disappearance of confiscated pornography from the evidence room.
Officers were watching the videotapes for lunch-hour entertainment - until higher-ups started requiring a supervisor's signature for release of that type of evidence.
"That put a quick stop to that," said John Vasquez, who leads the Texas association for evidence technicians.
A much more serious security problem - theft of heroin - surfaced at the Madison Police Department late last year. Investigators say an officer removed the addictive drug from the property room for no legitimate reason at least 10 times.
The department didn't notice the pattern until after Detective Jeffery Hughes crashed his car near Edgerton Nov. 20 and investigators say they found a torn-open evidence bag of heroin and other drug-related materials in and around his car.
As in Fort Worth, command officers in Madison almost immediately started requiring a supervisor's signature for the removal of sensitive evidence and say they are looking for more improvements.
But two months later, they've disclosed very little else.
Chief Noble Wray has refused to explain key details about what policies or procedures existed before the crash, how they may change and whether any other officers have been implicated in wrong-doing. He has promised to say more after the Hughes criminal investigation and a review of property room practices are complete.
"This is not something I want to keep internal," Wray said in an interview last week. "It's important to share the information. But at this point in time, I don't have any updates."
Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Wray is having records checked "going back many years" to find out if there have been additional breaches - mainly, whether officers may have exploited security loopholes in the rules to get drugs or other items for personal use or to tamper with evidence in pending cases.
GOOD FIRST STEP
State and national experts say a supervisor's signature for the release of sensitive evidence is a good first step.
But they stress that much more needs to be done to prevent officers from succumbing to the temptation of drugs, cash and other valuables sealed in storage lockers amid the stolen bikes, lost purses and other found property in police evidence rooms.
Maintaining a secure environment has become especially important in recent years because of advances in DNA analysis and other techniques that may require police to keep evidence secure for decades in case of appeals.
"It's an area of policing that requires attention and financing and a greater degree of scrutiny than ever before," said William Kiley, a retired New York deputy police chief who trains departments nationwide in property room practices.
The Madison department's reluctance to specifically explain how its system works, will work or used to work makes it difficult to say now what may be needed.
TIGHT TIME LINES
Nationally recognized best practices include tight time lines for officers to return removed evidence and systems that track and double-check the location of evidence. Several respected police-standards groups say such steps help to elevate practices in police property rooms, which traditionally have been cluttered, basement-level spaces that long have been viewed as the "red-headed step-child" of police operations, Vasquez said.
"We've been down in the dungeon all these years," he said. "Now it's time to do better, because an evidence room can make or break a police department. It's just that in a lot of agencies, until something happens, they don't make changes."
COULD BE CHARGED
Since the crash, Hughes, 39, of Milton has been fighting for his life - first at UW Hospital, where he spent weeks in a medically induced coma, and now in an unidentified care facility. City lawyers say his medical bills are being paid by a department disability policy that kicked in after the accident.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney last week said his detectives were "close to concluding" the criminal investigation of Hughes' crash. He could be charged with heroin possession and disciplined internally.
Court records show there had been clues something may have been wrong. Hughes often was not the detective assigned to the cases for which he sought - and received - drug evidence. He also repeatedly filled out property request slips saying he wanted the heroin for "testing," even though the drugs in question had often already been tested or were slated to be destroyed because the cases were resolved.
Investigators believe Hughes, who was known to suffer from painful chronic headaches, was taking the drugs for his own use. The investigation has ruled out drug-dealing by Hughes and the possibility he had an accomplice.
"This scenario is regrettably not unique," Kiley said. "In most cases around the country, the individual has been addicted to a substance and that was the reason for the theft."
Hughes' alleged frequent focus on drugs that were slated for destruction also fits with national patterns.
Kiley said drugs slated for destruction are the "most vulnerable entity" in a property room because the material is no longer needed by the courts but typically is kept around until large enough quantities accumulate to be shipped to a regional disposal facility.
Kiley said it's best that those kinds of drugs be stored separately from other drugs and that clerks in busy property rooms are periodically prompted through an automated system to check up on any evidence that has been temporarily removed for any purpose. He also said officers who remove evidence should be required to quickly return it or provide a third-party receipt showing where it is, such as at a crime lab or in a court.
"We recommend that departments have a requirement that when evidence is signed out, it's brought back or a receipt is provided by the end of the (day)," said Kiley, president of the International Association for Property and Evidence
, based in Burbank, Calif.
NOT ALWAYS ACCEPTED
Experts acknowledged - as Madison police have said informally - that a determined rule-breaker can find ways to circumvent almost any security system. It's also true that some steps, such as requiring a supervisor's signature, aren't universally accepted and can have certain drawbacks, such as possibly making the process slower or less efficient.
Most experts also stress that property room clerks - who for budget reasons are increasingly civilian employees - must be trained to see red flags and report concerns to supervisors.
In Hughes' case, on the day of the crash, the property room clerk who gave him 4.8 grams of heroin in an evidence bag later told investigators she thought the request was "odd" because she knew he wasn't assigned to the case and that the drugs had already been tested.
She also said Hughes seemed to be in a "daze" and "high."
Madison police have refused to say whether property clerks can deny requests and whether the clerk in this case told anyone about her concerns before investigators talked to her a few days after the crash.
They have said the property was "properly checked out" under procedures in effect then.
In two brief public statements since the crash, police officials said the existing property room system is designed to "thoroughly document the chain of custody" and that it does a good job of monitoring evidence through an "accountable tracking system" in which a paper trail exists whenever evidence is moved.
They also said clerks "are able to ascertain where evidence is at any point in time," but they won't say whether clerks routinely check on the status of removed evidence.
Outside observers have not agreed with the police department's assessment of the system. Former Madison police officer Michael Scott, who now directs the UW Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, said the incidents involving Hughes "quite obviously did expose a flaw in a lax policy."
Vasquez said it was "rare" and "not the norm" for officers to be allowed to check out evidence on cases they aren't assigned to, especially if the evidence is marked for destruction or already has been tested.
WHAT OTHER AREA AGENCIES ARE DOING
Here's what two area agencies had to say about how their evidence rooms operate: Village of Oregon Police Chief Doug Pettit said he was skeptical about the need for most officers to temporarily remove evidence from property rooms.
In his property room, only the property room manager - a command-level officer - handles evidence once it enters the room, he said. Evidence is dropped into a pass-through locker that the manager inside can access with an electronic key system, he said.
"If it needs to be released for court purposes, that person would do it," Pettit said. "If it needs to be destroyed, that would be the person to do it."
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said a sworn officer is in charge of considering deputies' requests for evidence from his property room. He said evidence processed into the room is immediately bar-coded so that if it is removed, the system shows who has it for whatever reason specified on the request form.
Mahoney said a supervisor's signature isn't required for his deputies to remove evidence and deputies aren't required to bring back receipts showing where they have taken the evidence within any certain time period, as experts recommend.
"It's worked out very well," Mahoney said. "In 28 years, I can't think of a case where we have had a problem."
KEEPING EVIDENCE SECURE
To keep a secure police evidence room, experts say:
* Allow only the detectives assigned to a case to check out evidence for that case.
* Require a supervisor's signature for removal of evidence.
* Put tight time limits on return of sensitive evidence and monitor it closely. Require return by the end of the shift or require the officer to bring back a receipt from a crime lab or from court or any other place it was taken.
* Install cameras and alarms in the evidence room.
* Use evidence-tracking software so clerks can see the status of removed evidence immediately upon opening a file.
* Limit temptation. For large amounts of cash, keep a few bills as samples and put the rest in a safety deposit box in the bank. Weigh and test drugs coming in, going out and coming back again.
* Acknowledge security breaches publicly, have an outside audit done and share results publicly.
* Closely screen property room workers, including financial background checks.
Sources: International Association for Property and Evidence
, Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians.
WHAT WE DON'T KNOW
The Madison Police Department is two weeks or more away from finishing a review of its evidence room security.
Then, Chief Noble Wray says, he will explain security procedures and how they'll be tightened.
For now, there are unanswered questions:
* How much authority do civilian property room clerks have to deny requests from officers?
* Were clerks trained to recognize red flags, such as repeated requests by one person, and required to report suspicions or concerns to supervisors?
* What rules were in place for the storage of drug evidence slated for destruction?
* Did clerks routinely monitor the status of removed evidence?
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International Association for Property and Evidence
"Law Enforcement Serving the Needs of Law Enforcement"