Houston police have a long history of mishandling property in their control, including a case resulting in a landmark 1990 federal appeals court ruling that held lax HPD policies made it easy to violate a citizen's constitutional rights against unlawful seizure of their property.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury's award of $147,779 to a Houston couple whose stereo equipment, video recorder, cameras, jewels, gold coins, hunting rifles and other property had been seized by Houston police. When the couple obtained a court order for the property's return, they learned most of it had been sold in two auctions and the rest was converted to police use.
In 2007, two HPD property room supervisors were suspended after 35 firearms turned up missing from the property room, including two that had resurfaced in the possession of criminal suspects. In 2004, HPD acknowledged that evidence from 8,000 criminal cases, going back to the 1960s, had been found in 280 boxes that were improperly labeled and stored.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland ,,, said employees of the department's $13 million property room are not perfect. But he noted the 59,000-square-foot property room, which opened in June 2009, earned certification from the International Organization for Standardization in October, the only police property room given that certification.
"We have human beings working in the property room," McClellend said. "People make mistakes. People in your business make mistakes. No one's perfect, and when you're dealing with that type of inventory of property and evidence, something can go to the wrong place, get mislabeled." ...
Capt. Charles Vazquez, who heads the HPD property room, said there are 380,000 separate items currently in storage, and employees know where the "overwhelming majority" are located. "I'm not saying we could get every single item," he said.Grits was particularly interested to learn that only a fraction of evidence released from the property room actually makes its way back to it rightful owners. "Last year, police checked in 65,000 items and disposed of another 24,000 items, including 8,200 returned to their owners. The other items were either auctioned off, donated to charity, converted to police use, destroyed or returned to the HPD division that checked them in." Some of that is because of drug evidence destroyed, but I'll bet a more detailed investigation or audit into what happened to the rest of the evidence, particularly that which was "converted to police use ... or returned to the HPD division that checked them in," would be instructive.
It's difficult to accept the "nobody's perfect" excuse from management for such a recurring problem. This isn't a one off. When you're dealing with processes involving that much property and data (especially when it's other people's property), the system needs adequate checks and redundancies to make sure evidence isn't lost or improperly disposed of. Ask inventory trackers at Walmart, or for that matter UPS. With technologies and processes available in the 21st century, the only reason these systems aren't more professionalized is that management and budget writers haven't prioritized their upgrade.
Too often police property rooms are an employment backwater within law enforcement agencies, frequently a place where officers are assigned when they have disciplinary problems or have been deemed unfit for field duty. (Charley Wilkinson of CLEAT boasts that many police union locals have been organized by disgruntled employees assigned to the property room as punishment.) I've no knowledge of specific staffing patterns at HPD, but frequently professionalism in this area is diminished by the (often accurate) perception among officers and management that property room duty amounts to second-class status, contributing to sloppy evidence retention practices. Grits would prefer to see property rooms run by dedicated, civilian professionals instead of sworn officers. Managing inventory is something big companies do all the time with far lower error rates and superior customer satisfaction.
See related Grits posts:
- Dallas DNA exonerations expose evidence retention flaws
- Senate bills encourage retention, testing of old DNA evidence
- 'The DNA's over there ... right next to the jelly': Problems with evidence preservation in Texas
- Using DNA in nonviolent offenses would swamp crime labs, evidence rooms
- 'Missing evidence among military crime labs new problems'
- Big D: Shopping Mecca
- Sex toys, guns walk away from Houston evidence room
- Nueces County cleaning up evidence room mess; how many others are just as bad?
- Police evidence rooms are 'red-headed stepchildren' of law enforcement, Integrity Unit told
- Galveston, Brazoria Counties react wisely by dismissing cases after evidence thefts
- Evidence retention failures thwart pursuit of innocence claims
- Enough weapons missing from Houston's property room for a 21-gun salute
- 500 guns missing from TX police evidence room in 'illegal firearms trafficking scheme'