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City inspector general: Police evidence inadequately protected

Joe Ferguson

Joe Ferguson

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Updated: October 22, 2012 6:20AM

The Chicago Police Department was unable to locate a “significant volume” of evidence and property found or seized by its officers because the 2.2 million items are being inadequately protected, documented and stored, the city’s inspector general has found.

During a seven-month audit that ended on July 20, Inspector General Joe Ferguson found that police employees “could not locate” 2.8 percent of items sampled from inventory records, nor could they find documentation for 3.8 percent of physical inventory sampled.

“Therefore, we conclude that [police] internal controls failed to ensure that evidence and property were adequately protected, properly documented and readily available when required,” the audit states.

“The lack of written polices and procedures for day-to-day operations may have contributed to this deficiency.”

Error rates of 2.8 and 3.8 percent might not seem like proof of a serious shortcoming. But the industry standard is zero errors — for good reason.

“The inability to locate inventoried items may result in evidence not being available for criminal trials, civil litigation or administrative hearings, making such prosecutions more difficult or potentially impossible,” the inspector general wrote.

“It could also result in property owners being unable to reclaim items no longer held for evidence with consequent legal exposure to the city in the form of compensatory damages to owners of lost or misplaced property. Therefore, the standard used . . . is no errors in locating inventory or records. CPD management agreed that there should be no errors.”

A Police Department edict requires desk sergeants to ensure that all property approved for transfer to the Evidence and Recovered Property Section be sent there within seven days.

But on April 11, the IG  found that 38,394 of 41,302 items already  approved for transfer had either not yet arrived at either of the two facilities or had been improperly logged by section employees.

Chicago Police Department spokeswoman Melissa Stratton said CPD worked “in partnership” with Ferguson to conduct the audit and has developed “rigorous new procedures” in response to its findings “to ensure the integrity of our facilities and any ongoing investigations.”

Although the IG concluded his audit on July 20, Stratton said the “new protocols” have been in place since January, including changes in leadership, tighter supervision and “better ensuring proper documentation and storage of property.” She also stressed that, “There are currently no known documented criminal cases that have been compromised based on lost evidence.”

According to the audit, personnel from the Police Department’s Evidence and Recovered Property Section “did not know why 2.8 percent of the items could not be located, but offered the following possibilities: theft, destruction or sale, the records were not updated or the inventory item location listed in the database was inaccurately recorded.”

The Evidence and Recovered Property Section is responsible for the receipt, storage, safekeeping, release and disposal of 2.2 million items worth of evidence and property found or seized by Chicago Police.

Evidence and property is stored at two locations — a main facility on Homan Avenue and at a “bulky storage facility” on South Michigan Avenue — by 51 sworn officers and 13 civilian employees.

At the Homan facility, there are separate secured rooms for weapons, ammunition, narcotics and cash, complete with steel cages that run from floor to ceiling. To gain entry, employees must enter a password and scan their palm and fingers on biometric readers.

Ferguson concluded that ventilation of narcotics storage areas had not been tested for compliance with industry standards, despite employee complaints of respiratory problems.

“Not providing a properly ventilated area for the storage of narcotics creates avoidable health risks. Poor employee health could reduce the number of employees available for duty and increase health-related costs to taxpayers,” the audit states.

Particularly troubling, Ferguson said, was the fact that the Police Department had “no documented response” to operational deficiencies uncovered in a 2005 internal audit. Only one of eight recommendations in that report have been followed and “storage space problems” have not been alleviated.

“We observed inventory stacked almost to the ceiling at the Homan facility, obstructing security cameras in some areas,” the audit states.

“We also noted instances where a recovering officer had failed to properly categorize property when completing the initial inventory record, resulting in items remaining in storage for years unnecessarily.”

Ferguson further noted that there was “no police directive” instructing personnel how to dispose of special money inventory when the original owner cannot be found.

“For example, rare coins, stamps and silver certificates could be auctioned, but instead have been retained,” the audit states.

Ferguson noted that the Police Department has “struggled to manage its evidence and recovered property” inventory for years.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has promised to tackle the inherited problem head-on by, among other things, increasing training, implementing the 2005 recommendations, establishing a task force to update an electronic inventory system and holding supervisors responsible, Ferguson said.

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