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Poor property room controls a factor in St. Louis scandal, audit finds | Miami, USA
BYLINE: Mary Spicuzza

St Louis, MO

At a Glance

> Audit of St. Louis Police Department property room finds problems

> Scandal-plagued Department was hurt by poor internal controls

> Recommendations in audit offer tips to shore up seized asset program

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has had its share of scandals in recent years. Police officers there seized World Series tickets from scalpers and gave them to friends and family. St. Louis officers and the former police chief's daughter repeatedly were allowed to borrow cars from a company with a lucrative contract to handle seized and impounded cars. And last fall, the police department announced it was returning several years worth of cash and property that had been seized but never returned.

The car towing controversy, a scandal first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, already has led to one police chief's resignation and an indictment against a former detective. But an independent audit of the police department's property room, which was obtained through a public records request, suggests that St. Louis' property-handling problems extend beyond towed cars.

Completed last year, the report recommends sweeping reforms to the agency's system for handling seized property, including staffing and training, policies and internal controls (such as audits), storage and security, documentation, and disposing of property.

Audits prevent scandals
"Those agencies that adopt solid internal controls are generally much less likely to suffer major scandals related to the property function," the Evidence Control Systems, Inc., audit reads. "Rarely does one read in the newspaper about a department involved in a property room scandal where audit and inventories are being routinely conducted."

However the auditors found that based on their interviews, "there is no record of a full inventory ever being conducted in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Property Custody Unit."

The auditors' recommendations include:

*Removing the Property Custody Unit from the criminal investigations bureau to enhance accountability

*Drug tests, polygraph and financial checks for people hired to work in the property unit

*Hiring civilians to staff the property custody unit to lower the "incredibly high" attrition rate and to make it a desirable job

*Securing all money in specially designed currency envelopes that have specific printed information about details like denominations, totals, names of owners, officers, and witnessing officers

*On a monthly or quarterly bases, a list of property custody unit items that have been signed out to the Crime Laboratory be accounted for or audited

*Changing the layout for the unit's storage areas, which auditors said "couldn't be any more inefficient"

Lack of coordination with crime lab
Auditors found, for example, that the property unit doesn't routinely check with the crime lab to make sure evidence isn't missing. "There have been property scandals in law enforcement in which evidence was signed out to a laboratory but was either diverted in route to or from the lab," the audit said. It also warned that the department doesn't have an accurate accounting system for property and evidence contained in the property custody unit storage areas -- while the unit's previous commanding officer estimated the total inventory of property and evidence stored there to be between 180,000 and 200,000 items, his replacement said the inventory was 89,966.

It's unclear what, if any, of the recommendations have been implemented since the audit was completed last year. Erica S. Van Ross, the police department's director of public information, declined to comment.

In some areas, the audit raised more questions than it answered. Auditors found that St. Louis police had stopped using to auction unclaimed property and evidence about a year before their report. "The Property Custody Unit staff does not know if or when the use of this company for auctions is to resume," it said. They also wrote that auditors couldn't find written criteria about who determines whether property and evidence should be auctioned.

Drug testing recommended
While they didn't write about specific cases, auditors did mention that some St. Louis police officers have had problems with drug addiction and recommended random drug tests for property unit staff. "In the past the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, like other law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, has had sworn members become addicted to illegal substances," it reads. "The potential damage to criminal prosecutions as well as to the erosion of the general public's perception of integrity and confidence in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department can be very substantial if an employee within the Property Custody Unit becomes dependent on drugs."

Auditors also warned that failure to address some of the items addressed in the report may have a negative effect on "past, present and future prosecutions, and may adversely affect internal operational capability."

Joseph T. Latta, the president of Evidence Control Systems, the Burbank, California-based company that conducted the property room audit, said he had no additional comments beyond what was included in the lengthy report.

David B. Smith, the former first deputy chief of the asset forfeiture office at the U.S. Department of Justice who's now a principal of the law firm English & Smith, said it sounds like the audit is on target. "None of the recommendations sound controversial," said Smith, a member of the Editorial Board of Advisors. "They all sound sensible to me."

Further steps
Other recommendations in the audit include:

*A complete inventory of the Property Custody Unit should be done at least annually

*Care should be taken to maintain "chain of custody" for all evidence

*Thorough monitoring of property and evidence should be done with the help of security cameras

*Video surveillance images of the property room should be retained for at least five years. "Property room thefts are generally identified weeks, months or years after the theft," the audit reads.

*All entrances to the property area should have alarms and video surveillance

*Drop-safes should be anchored to the floor so the safes can't be moved out of the property rooms

*Jewelry should be prohibited from being stored in one container and shouldn't be labeled as "miscellaneous jewelry"

*Develop clearly-defined protocols to be followed when disposing of evidence

*Develop guidelines on a variety of auction issues, like hiring an independent appraisal company to establish values of properties before auctions and determining whether or not police department employees can bid on property being auctioned

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