Friday, September 26, 2008

Police evidence rooms are 'red-headed stepchidren' of law enforcement, Integrity Unit told

At yesterday's meeting of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, created earlier this summer to examine proposed innocence-related reforms, John Vasquez from the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians (TAPEIT) gave an interesting presentation about evidence preservation failures and the need for greater professionalism and implementation of best practices by police department property rooms. TAPEIT has about 600 active members who work in law enforcement agencies around the state, he said. (See their rather active message boards.)

Vasquez gave these examples of property room failures from years past:
  • In Fort Worth in 1997, a murderer used a knife stolen from the Fort Worth Police Department property room to kill someone. His mother, who worked for the Fort Worth PD, supplied him the weapon. Police found a house full of property stolen from the evidence room when they came to arrest him.
  • Galveston's PD's property room was recently called "the worst" she'd seen in 30 years by a consultant brought to recommend changes after an employee stole cocaine, ecstasy and $18,000. The thief was actually a TAPEIT member, he said, who'd attended their previous year's conference, but the agency suffered from a lack of supervision and documentation procedures to prevent an unethical person from stealing.
  • In Houston earlier this year 30 guns turned up missing and Vasquez provided additional detail about that case. The culprit was a telephone repairman, he said, who had free access. They also found a temp employee with evidence room access while he was awaiting trial on aggravated robbery charges. He said the department didn't have "enough personnel to follow others around" when non-PD employees needed evidence room access.
  • Money seized as part of pending asset forfeitures was stolen from the Hillsboro PD evidence room in 2006, said Vasquez. A single thief took the money, but there were no checks and balances, paperwork, audits or other preventive methods to oversee staff.
He needn't have stopped there, of course, but the examples made Vasquez's point that evidence room management could "make or break a department." Within many departments, evidence rooms are considered a "black hole" or "red-headed stepchild," he said, and are typically stuck in a basement somewhere treated with an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. Nearly every evidence room in the state is full and needs more space, he said.

A key problem arises from departments' historical approach to staffing evidence rooms, said Vasquez. Many agencies assign officers who have disciplinary problems or who've been relegated to desk duty pending an Internal Affairs investigation. Some officers are put there as "light duty" because of physical handicaps that supposedly prevent them from being able to perform field work, but that practice ignores how much lifting and toting must be done by those who work in property rooms. Most departments use police officers to manage evidence, he said, but that's not required and TAPEIT recommends that civilians perform that function.

There's very little training for evidence managers beyond what TAPEIT provides, said Vasquez, and typically departments prioritize field officers in their training budgets. Flawed methods are often passed down by word of mouth or picked up on a "learn as you go" basis, while many evidence room managers don't know the laws that govern their activities. Rep. Jim McReynolds questioned whether techs could learn everything they needed to in the 8-hour TAPEIT training, to which Vasquez replied, "No."

The most immediate problem with Texas evidence rooms stem from a lack of space, he said, and unclear laws and rules about what can be kept or disposed of. When dealing with biological evidence, for example, some DAs want only a sample of whatever was tested - a piece of bloody fabric from a couch instead of the whole couch, e.g. - while others want the entire item saved for trial. Also, too many evidence rooms fail to exercise their "right of refusal" for items that are shoddily packaged or too dangerous to store around where people immediately work.

The advent of "touch DNA," he said, threatened to overwhelm agencies' storage capacity. Potentially lots of new items could be stored for touch-DNA testing, even though labs already have tremendous backlogs. That means long lag times during which the evidence must be securely stored despite limited space.

Another issue: The law allows pre-trial destruction of most drug evidence as long as it was weighed, measured, photographed, and at least five random samples were taken with sufficient quantities for testing. But some DAs want all the drugs saved for "show and tell" in front of the jury, even when large volumes are involved. Vasquez thinks photographs would do the job just as well.

Seized meth labs are especially toxic, he said, and many evidence managers struggle with how to handle them as evidence or safely destroy them. He also said air quality in evidence rooms can create health and safety hazards. For example, keeping too much marijuana laying around for a long time can spawn Aspergillus, a toxic mold that can be inhaled by evidence room workers.

Rep. Jim McReynolds, a member of Judge Hervey's "Integrity Unit" as well as the budget officer for the Corrections Committee in the Texas House, said he wants to carve out evidence preservation as an area for his office to work on and likely propose legislation next year during the 81st Legislature.

RELATED: For those interested in reading more about this topic, I should have mentioned that the Denver Post last year produced the most in-depth recent journalistic analysis yet of problems related to evidence retention around the country, an account I highly recommend. To pull one Texas gem from the story: In Houston, a "courthouse official" said to the Post, "Biological evidence? That would include tree bark, right?"


Anonymous said...

Have you given any thought to the number of Texas sheriff's who will soon be leaving office January 1and turning the reigns over to a new guy.

I would not leave office without a certified audit of the property room. And If I'm the new guy coming in, one of the first things I'm going to do is have the property room audited.

I for one believe that property/ evidence rooms should be audited at least once annually. However, most agencies don't do anything until they are mandated to do so.

A report of the audit should be submitted to the state to including all property and evidence that could not be accounted for.

We are required to submit annual audit reports to the state for the jail commissary and asset forfeiture programs. Why not include the property/evidence room?

FleaStiff said...

I imagine its a question of salary levels, budget appropriations, perceived priorities, etc. The work is boring, repetitive and the money is low: so do you expect to get stellar Property Clerks?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"do you expect to get stellar Property Clerks?"

Not when departments assign officers there who are facing disciplinary charges, no.