If people with criminal records could get into the police evidence room to steal firearms, it seems the risk would be equally great for someone to tamper with, destroy or taint evidence in pending criminal cases. The Denver Post ran a major investigative series last year focusing on sloppy evidence room practices around the country, and it sounds like Houston PD faces similar challenges fulfilling its evidence preservation duties.
For months, maybe years, people with criminal backgrounds had access to secure areas of the police station, including a property room from which 30 guns disappeared within six months, according to internal police documents.
The documents, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, indicated that lax security created an environment ripe for theft.
No one has been charged in the gun thefts, although police suspected telephone repairmen who admitted stealing other items, and a temporary employee who had access to the property room while awaiting trial on aggravated robbery charges.
Police say they have improved security including adding cameras, and they plan to open a new, $13.8 million property room next year.
"We feel all the holes in security have been closed and the property room is safe," Craig Ferrell, HPD's general counsel, told the Chronicle.
Police Chief Harold Hurtt publicly acknowledged the loss of the guns in April 2007, but his department has offered scant details since then. Ferrell declined to comment on the department's investigation because of possible lawsuits.
The department fired one civilian property room supervisor on May 9, and another retired weeks ago rather than face a continuing investigation. Lawyers for the supervisors blamed the thefts on the lack of monitoring cameras and the access granted to people who had not undergone background checks.
Lawyers for the supervisors said exceptions were made to rules that required visitors in the property room be escorted. They said people performing court-ordered community service did custodial work there.
According to an e-mail obtained by the newspaper, police in 2006 fired two temporary employees who were working without background checks. One had an open warrant for his arrest, and the other had been convicted of theft, assault and unlawfully carrying a weapon.
"This is of great concern to us at this facility," one of the property room supervisors, Allen Baquet, wrote in an e-mail. "We don't have enough personnel to be following these people around."
Baquet suggested to Hurtt that the department investigate the phone-repair contractor after employees discovered an Uzi was missing last year. The owner of the contractor, Houston-based DC Services, said he offered to cooperate with police but never heard back. He said he does not believe repairmen took the guns.
Two of the repairmen were captured by video cameras during a May 2007 sting as they stole a backpack, a model space shuttle and a bag of candy. When confronted, they confessed and admitted taking items from other work sites, including a camcorder from the police academy.
Both men had criminal backgrounds and served short jail terms for the police station thefts.
One of them, Jose Germeko Stelly, said the property room was an easy target for thieves.
"Security was terrible," he said. "The whole city of Houston is kind of behind, I guess. They are just now putting in cameras and things."
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Guns missing from Houston PD evidence room
Having mentioned last week two evidence room thefts that caused more than 25 criminal cases to be dismissed in Galveston and Brazoria Counties, I should point out this disturbing recent story ("Guns missing from Houston police evidence room," May 30) in which we learn, according to AP (citing an earlier Houston Chronicle story that's no longer online), that: