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Unanswered questions about APD evidence room mess

BYLINE: David Forbes
Link to Article

Asheville, NC

An image of the lack of order in the APD evidence room found by auditor Mike Wright. Photos by Max Cooper

“I'm not going to talk about that,” Asheville police Chief William Anderson told Xpress after City Council’s July 24 meeting. He refused to meet the next day to answer questions concerning the evidence-room scandal, which Anderson has called “a black eye on the department.”

Earlier that evening, a report to Council revealed that the evidence room was a wreck. Mike Wright of Blueline systems, the company hired to conduct a full audit, found bags of evidence on the floor and blocking doors. Evidence listed as “destroyed” in the computer system hadn't been, and boxes with cash envelopes designated "school fund" weren’t accounted for. Wright said the city might need to hire a separate company to deal with thousands of unfiled records. In many areas, there was no discernible order.

"There was no shelf-numbering system in about 75 percent of the facility,” he said, “so it was difficult to describe where anything might be.”

On the overhead in Council chambers, Wright displayed images of the disarray he found.

The Asheville Police Department regularly touts its compliance ("A Nationally Accredited Agency" is written on the side of the city's police cars) with the standards of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which requires semiannual inspections of the evidence room and a review of randomly-selected items. Going back to at least 2008, those reviews all gave the evidence room a clean bill of health.

From 1991 to early 2011, the APD's evidence room was overseen by William Lee Smith, who resigned in January 2011 while under investigative suspension. In April, a partial audit found 115 high priority items — guns, drugs, and money — missing. This led to the State Bureau of Investigation sealing the evidence room and launching a continuing investigation, and Council voting Wright $175,000 to conduct a full audit (he finished reviewing 75 percent of the items and has left the rest to city staff).

According to the city, Smith reported to Capt. Sarah Benson, who oversees the APD's Support Services. Benson reported to then-Chief Bill Hogan, who resigned after news of the missing evidence broke. Smith has not been charged with any crime.

On Dec. 6, 2010 — about a month before Smith resigned — Benson and Hogan conducted a walk-through, according to a memo reviewed by Carolina Public Press, and claimed they found "the entire area was neat, clean, and well organized," quite different from the situation Wright would describe.

How did the evidence room issues escaped the notice of the CALEA safeguards and the department's oversight?

"I can't answer the question," City spokesperson Dawa Hitch writes after asked about the matter by Xpress. "I don't know."

Wright estimated that the department will need eight to 12 employees to adequately staff both the new evidence room and the old one for the estimated two years it will take to fully deal with the problems. Anderson is already interviewing applicants for a new property manager and promises stricter safeguards on the evidence room in the future. As for whether he will staff the evidence room with the number of people Wright recommends, Hitch notes that "the number of employees assigned to the property/evidence room is at the discretion of the Chief. He will make that determination. I am sure that will be part of the quarterly updates he provides to Council."

Xpress, along with other local media outlets, has sued the city and District Attorney Ron Moore for their failure to release Blueline's audit. On July 24, Council agreed to send a letter to District Attorney Ron Moore asking for the recommendations from that report.

APD Chief William Anderson watches the July 24 presentation on the state of the department's old evidence room.
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