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Auditor shares recommendations for fixes, chief asks to see audit
The Asheville Police Department’s evidence room was in deep disarray, with thousands of items uncataloged or poorly recorded and difficult to locate, a contractor hired by the city to audit the room’s contents told City Council on Tuesday.
“This situation was horrendous,” Mayor Terry Bellamy said after the presentation by Mike Wright, manager of Blueline Systems & Services, the firm Council paid $175,000 to conduct the audit.
Wright revealed that Blueline was able to inventory only about 75 percent of the evidence room’s holdings before that funding ran out, and estimated that it would take another two years to fully restore the integrity of the items and the systems that keep track of them.
A partial audit conducted by the police department in early 2011 found that some guns, drugs and money were missing, and the department’s longtime evidence-room manager, Lee Smith, resigned after being suspended. Then-Police Chief Bill Hogan abruptly resigned soon thereafter. The State Bureau of Investigation is probing the case, but no one has yet been charged with taking evidence from the room.
A group of Asheville-based media outlets, including Carolina Public Press, recently filed a public-records complaint seeking the release of the Blueline audit. The lawsuit targets the office of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, who has the report, and the city of Asheville, which commissioned it.
The audit itself was not released to council during the meeting. A hearing on the matter will likely be scheduled soon.
Wright offered no information on how many items might be missing, but did share much about his general findings and Blueline’s work for the city.
“Appalling” situation still needs sorting out
Since the scandal broke, the APD has had a new evidence room, while the old one remains under seal and scrutiny.
Blueline photographed and videoed the room when the audit started last summer. The images, some of which were shown by Wright on a screen at the council meeting, showed evidence items overflowing from shelves and piled on the floor.
“It quickly became apparent that, in some areas, a readily understandable and accurate system existed,” Wright said. “In other areas, the section of shelving or evidence that we encountered had no understandable organization at all.”
There was, in fact, no numbered shelving system, one of the many problems Blueline encountered.
“The location of items described in the databases was rarely specific enough to narrow down exactly where an item might be located within the facility,” he said.
Staff were to use two databases to keep track of evidence and property items, Wright said. One covered items from the 1980s to 2005, while the other covered items from then to 2011. Both were rife with omissions and inaccuracies, he said.
Other records were also in shambles, according to Wright.
“Thousands of pages of property reports, disposition (records) and correspondence have never been filed,” and there are “10 to 15 file cabinets in that facility full of papers that are in various states of organization,” he said.
Blueline designed and implemented a shelf-storage and numbering system and new databases of all the items that it reviewed, Wright said, and his company handled and catalogued 35,822 items.
Given the extent of the evidence-room chaos, Blueline had to modify its original plan in order to “make the best use of time and money,” Wright said.
A survey of the remaining 25 percent of the room remains to be done.
Questions remain on what is missing
As for what might or might not be missing from the room due to theft, Wright suggested that it’s too early to tell.
To begin with, “the fact that an item can’t be found doesn’t rule out finding it in the future in an area not yet scanned,” he said.
Furthermore, he said, “Many items showed (their) disposition as ‘destroyed,’ yet they are still on the shelves.”
“In order to draw an accurate final conclusion to questions about whether or not cash, drugs or firearms are missing from the facility, thousands of paper documents and handwritten lists may have to be located, examined, entered and reconciled with a specific piece of property,” he said, recommending that the city hire someone to scan all of those papers.
During the audit, Blueline identified a number of questionable items and packages and referred them to the State Bureau of Investigation, Wright said.
“Blueline has worked with, and continues to work with, the SBI investigators and the district attorney and his staff,” he said, adding that he estimated he and his staff have spent 100 hours with the SBI so far.
Wright also revealed that his company’s report advised ways to get the department’s evidence systems up to code.
“We made many detailed and specific recommendations that are in the report that was filed with the district attorney,” Wright said, listing several that he said would be of concern to Council:
- “The existing paper filing system is not consistent from year to year, and the files need to be organized, resorted, analyzed and verified.”
- “An aggressive and continuous purging program must be implemented to get the inventory of the facility under control and to prevent the inventory from outgrowing the storage capacity.”
- “Since items of critical importance were found throughout the facility, the entire facility must be scanned and searched in order to definitely state that an item is missing.”
- “The evidence from the new evidence facility cannot be combined with the evidence from the existing facility until sufficient purging has occurred to allow the new evidence to be stored separately and until such time as the district attorney and SBI have reviewed the facility and approved the plan to combine the facilities.”
- “The city (should) employee a staff of four persons and preferably six persons dedicated to restoring the old property room to proper order.”
- “To prevent a recurrence of any of the problems which have plagued the old property room, Council should see that the Police Department has adequate staff, resources and facilities to operate the new property room in accordance with nationally accepted standards. The recommended staffing level for the new evidence room is four to six persons.”
- “All property and evidence staff should receive specialized training in property and evidence management and in the software.”
Reforms in the face of a lawsuit
“It is appalling to look at the situation that you had to walk into,” Bellamy told Wright after his presentation. “It’s very disheartening.”
She and other council members praised Blueline for its work, and many of them peppered both Wright and current Police Chief William Anderson, who started his job in March of this year, with questions.
“I think we’re in a situation where we have got to restore the public’s trust,” Bellamy said, and she urged fellow council members to give the chief the resources he needs to move beyond the scandal.
Anderson said that he’s hiring a new evidence-room manager, and will conduct interviews in August and make a quick hire. Destruction of evidence in the old room is on hold until the SBI completes its investigation, he said.
“The bottom line is, we’re going to have to start from scratch,” Anderson said.
“We’re going to have to touch every single piece of evidence that’s in both the new and old property rooms,” he said. “We’re going to have to work with the district attorney’s office to establish clear-cut policies when it comes to the disposal of evidence, and we’re going to have to improve that entire room, reorganize it and re-catalog.”
Anderson also asked to see the Blueline audit, which he’s been briefed on but never seen.
“In order for us to move forward … we really need to see the audit that’s in the custody of the district attorney,” he said. “We need to look at all the recommendations that are in that audit, and we need to look at the findings that Blueline identified, because that basically is going to be the roadmap to take us where we need to go.”
Bellamy proposed that Council write a letter to District Attorney Moore requesting that Blueline’s recommendations in the audit be shared with Chief Anderson, which Council approved.
The public-records lawsuit went mostly unmentioned at the meeting, but Council member Jan Davis raised and critiqued it.
“This thing with the Carolina (Public) Press, and Gannett, and Mountain Xpress and all those folks that have a suit against the city of Asheville — which is the citizens of Asheville — for a report that’s not even complete at this time, I think we need to respond to that in some fashion,” he said. “I’m not sure that it’s a fair thing to our citizens that we have a lawsuit begging for a report that’s not been given to them that’s not complete at this time.”
Near the end of the discussion, City Manager Gary Jackson said that his office would provide quarterly reports on expected improvements to the APD’s evidence-room procedures.
For more of Carolina Public Press’ ongoing special investigation into the Asheville Police Department, go here.