Utah law enforcement agencies lost or misplaced evidence and seized property and didn’t keep accurate records about whether items had been destroyed, prompting the state auditor to call for agencies to evaluate and improve their storage systems.
Auditors reviewed seven unnamed agencies and found all of them had items missing or misplaced from their inventory, in addition to items marked as destroyed that weren’t, or vice versa, according to the findings released Wednesday.
“Inaccurate inventory records not only erode public trust but also may diminish the ability to prosecute past, current, or future cases,” the review said.
Auditors made the following findings:
• Property records didn’t match with property in storage.
• Agencies weren’t doing enough to safeguard property.
• Some didn’t follow industry-approved standards for destroying property.
• When taking property from owners, some agencies didn’t issue a receipt.
• Some didn’t secure access to digital records listing the items in property rooms.
“We were sampling a set of agencies so that approximately 135 [law enforcement agencies] around the state will hopefully read the report, look at their policies and procedures and improve their oversight,” State Auditor John Dougall said in an interview.
Misplaced items — defined as property that technicians eventually found but not in the locations listed on an inventory — accounted for the majority of so-called discrepancies, with 198 items misplaced across the seven agencies.
The review found 171 items that were destroyed but still shown in inventory, and 139 items that were missing.
The vast majority of missing items were drugs and drug paraphernalia. Only four cases where property went missing involved other types of property: in three instances it was money, and in one case, a firearm.
Because of lax inventory records, auditors couldn’t determine if the missing items were missing “due to poor record keeping, theft, or some other reason."
Analysts also found that agencies didn’t properly protect evidence and seized property, with more instances of missing items found in agencies that used part-time technicians or technicians that had other jobs in the department.
The review called possessions that were incorrectly marked as destroyed or otherwise gone from an agency’s inventory “of particular concern," because those items “could be easy targets for misuse or pilferage.”
In addition to missing, misplaced and miscategorized property, auditors found agencies failed to take regular inventory of property; to control or document who goes into property rooms; to make sure all rooms have security cameras or alarms.
When agencies destroy property, such as drugs, the audit found that only one department followed all five International Associate For Property & Evidence Inc. standards.
The standards mandate that a drug must be authorized for destruction. Then it must be verified as the item that was authorized for destruction with a witness present. The witness should also observe as the item is sealed in a destruction container, and when that container is taken to where it will be destroyed. A witness must also be there to see the destruction, according to the review.
Those precautions should be taken because “controlled substances pending destruction have the greatest likelihood of being pilfered since the items are no longer needed for prosecution,” it said.
The review also found that officers weren’t following the law by not providing a receipt to people whose property was taken without a warrant. When there was a warrant, the review found, officers always provided a receipt.
“We wanted to make sure folks understood even when a warrant’s not involved, you need to make sure you’re providing some kind of receipt to the person that you took the property from,” Dougall said.
Dougall also highlighted how auditors found that some agencies didn’t attempt to find the owners of found items, and never contacted the finder to retrieve the item.
In one instance, two firearms that had been reported stolen were turned in to police, but police destroyed the firearms instead of returning them to the owner or finder, the review states.
The review also found that often too many people had access to — and could delete — digital records about property, including individuals who’d been fired.
The auditors reviewed agencies from August 2018 to April 2019. Dougall said he chose to examine evidence rooms because he wanted to look into law enforcement issues that likely hadn’t been audited “for a long period of time."
He said the review wasn’t in response to recent shortcomings in the Weber County Sheriff’s Office evidence room, where a now-former evidence technician pleaded guilty to eating methamphetamine that had been confiscated.
Orem Police Chief Gary Giles, who is president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, told FOX 13 he was pleased with the audit.
“Every agency ought to have a policy in place, and they need to be following that policy. As the audit did say in their summary, this is a good reminder for agencies that they need to look at their policies and procedures, evaluate and following and make sure they do the correct thing,” he told FOX 13.
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