Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Houston PD property room failing at customer satisfaction

Houston PD continues to either lose evidence from its property room or sometimes sell or destroy without consent from the owner, including crime victims and their families, reported the Houston Chronicle. The article ("HPD track record with seized property takes another  hit," April 30) focuses on the stuggle of a drowned woman's family who was shocked to learn HPD had auctioned off her personal effects a year and a half before the trial date of her boyfriend who was accused of killing her (he was acquitted). Said her mother, "They stole from my deceased daughter. They're doing the same things they arrest people for." Here's reporter James Pinkerton's overview of the problem:
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:


Lee said...


But is guess everyone already knew that. HPD is the picture perfect depiction of stupitity and failure.

The Comedian said...

Dear Chief McClelland:

We, the public, don't want excuses, we want results. Excuses are like assholes - everybody's got one.

Having worked in a number of institutional settings, I know first hand that many certifications aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Many are mere rubber stamps extended after only a superficial survey during which the honchos are interviewed, the paperwork is cooked and the staff is intimidated into keeping their lips zipped.

Anonymous said...

Not confined to Texas. Now serving life without parole in Virginia, lawyers for a death row inmate filing appeal discovered evidence "destroyed by mistake" before final appeals and request for DNA testing. Hearing took him off Death Row but to a forever in prison life existence. Not even an apology or admission of negligence. Answer from Virginia, "humans make mistakes".

Anonymous said...

Grits should learn how the property room works. Personnel in the property room dont decide what property to keep or dispose of. That decision is made by the division/ investigator overseeing the case. The personnel in the property room simply comply with their orders.

Blaming the property division personnel for disposing of someone's property is akin to blaming the banker because you wrote a bad check. There is blame to be cast, its just not on the property room personnel