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St. Petersburg police hunt for missing guns — inside own department

St. Petersburg Times,
BYLINE: Jamal Thalji, Times Staff Writer
Link to Article

St. Petersburg, FL

ST. PETERSBURG — Law enforcement has the power to seize a lot of useful stuff from the bad guys: cash, cars and especially guns. Over the years, the St. Petersburg Police Department has added 280 confiscated weapons to its arsenal.

But last year police discovered that 50 of those weapons were missing.

That sparked a police dragnet of itself. Since that audit in August 2009, officers have been scouring their own department for the lost guns. They found 38 of them, the latest audit said.

But 12 firearms are still missing. They may never be found.

"I'm convinced these guns aren't out there on the streets," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "They've probably been destroyed or used for parts."

The missing firearms were most likely rendered harmless even before they disappeared. But the problem, the chief conceded, is they can't be sure because for the last two decades "the record-keeping wasn't there to start with."

By state law, police agencies must hand over all seized weapons to the local sheriff's office so they can be destroyed. But if that agency wants to keep any weapons, it can get them back.

That's what St. Petersburg did. Some were kept for training purposes, such as teaching police dogs how to track a weapon that's just been fired. Some were kept for educational purposes. Others were used on the streets. Small guns, for example, could be used by undercover detectives because they're easier to conceal.

But as paper records gave way to computer databases and those were replaced by more modern systems, the department lost track of the seized firearms, according to the 2009 audit.

Weapons that were returned weren't being logged, and the records of weapons that were assigned to officers weren't kept up-to-date. Old records and newer databases didn't match. It all came out last year after a routine audit, the chief said.

When he saw the 2009 audit, Harmon said, the next step was clear: find the missing guns. Slowly, investigators did just that.

Some were still being used by officers; others were found stored inside the armories but were never logged back in.

"They did a pretty thorough job of turning the department upside down looking for them," Harmon said.

Four of the guns that couldn't be accounted for were believed to be rendered safe and displayed at crime watch meetings. But when the display cases were destroyed, the audit said, the guns may have gone with them.

Still missing, however, are seven semiautomatic pistols, three revolvers and two Winchester Model 67 bolt-action .22-caliber rifles. The chief said the department will keep searching. But the audit says they were likely destroyed or stripped for parts, and rules out the possibility that any guns were "stolen or lost."

The department said an August 2010 audit accounted for its entire arsenal, which is now tracked by two separate databases.

"To me the process worked exactly the way it should have," Harmon said. "We identified an issue and since then we took corrective action.

"I think the problem was some pretty lax record keeping that spanned a couple of decades."

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