Merced County Times Newspaper
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DOJ findings on Atwater evidence room released

Key findings from a California Department of Justice (DOJ) report on the Atwater Police Department’s (APD) evidence room were made public Friday afternoon. In February of 2018, the Merced Sheriff’s Department conducted a spot audit of APD’s evidence room at the request of the City of Atwater and found irregularities, a disorganized evidence room, and unaccounted for cash and weapons. Following the spot audit, the Atwater Police Chief, Merced County Sheriff and the Merced County District Attorney requested that the California DOJ conduct their own audit of the evidence room, which began on August 17 and completed later that month.

The California DOJ audit team consisted of DOJ special agents, employees from the Merced County Sheriff’s and Fresno County Sheriff’s Departments. As part of the audit, the team of investigators audited each item in the evidence room and the evidence room annex, with all money and weapons being either counted or accounted for, with all deposits made from the evidence room to city accounts being verified and investigated.

A detailed report from the audit was submitted by the DOJ in late 2018, and shows irregularities and a lack of proper evidence handling procedures at APD. In particular the report identified that the APD evidence room was grossly mismanaged, staffed with poorly and improperly trained evidence room personnel, lacked proper security of the evidence room, and had poor accounting and destruction procedures for evidence stored in the evidence room. Due to the nature of the issues brought to light, while the California DOJ found no unaccounted for funds or weapons, the report notes that the systemic failures present would make it difficult to determine if criminal conduct did occur.

The DOJ’s investigation identified the following issues, irregularities and lack of proper evidence handling procedures at the Atwater Police Department:

  1. A systemic failure on the part of successive administrations to create policies for the proper running of a police department evidence room, evidenced by:

    1. Lack of a written policy to operate a property room

    2. Access to the property room was not controlled, numerous employees over the past decade had access to the evidence room

    3. Lack of training for evidence room personnel

      1. Most employees had access to a limited online course on property and evidence procedures and the proper operation of an evidence room

    4. Lack of planning and oversight of the evidence room

      1. The space was inadequate based on personnel’s lack of training to adequately purge evidence that is no longer needed

        1. Evidenced by the chaotic nature of the evidence room when the Merced Sheriff conducted the spot audit in February 2018

    5. Improper storage and accountability of money

      1. The safe used for money was not secured and no one had the combination

      2. Counterfeit currency was booked into evidence as “paper money” or other descriptions and was accounted for as US currency

      3. When funds were deposited into the City’s General Fund, the moneys were co-mingled into the deposit, thereby making them unaccounted for individually

    6. Lack of consistent auditing and destruction of evidence

      1. Items listed as “destroyed” were found in the evidence room

      2. Items that were listed as being in the evidence room were found to be destroyed or returned to the owner

      3. Items listed as being stored in the main evidence room were actually stored at the evidence room annex, or visa-versa

    7. Lack of proper reporting and booking procedures by police officers

      1. No “chain of custody” documents existed to show proper transfer of evidence

      2. There was no “evidence” section on police reports, making it difficult to determine why the evidence was seized, from whom, and the purpose for it’s seizure

    8. Lack of any reasonable security of the evidence room

      1. The key being used was not a “do not duplicate” type of key, it was unknown how many and who had keys

      2. The evidence room did not have alarm and access control that would indicate who accessed the evidence room, and the times and dates

      3. No access control list was present that employees would use to sign in and out of when they accessed the evidence room

      4. The evidence room annex was located in a building that was co-located with a non-profit. The wall separating the uses was not the type needed to properly secure the evidence room portion from unauthorized access. The building was alarmed with a non-monitored audible alarm.

    9. Lack of proper oversight and management of evidence room

      1. When audited in February 2018, the room was so cluttered that it was impossible to access the room without planning to move numerous items to make a path to access the rear of the room

      2. Lack of access restrictions and controls of the evidence room

      3. Lack of scheduled destruction of items that we either no longer of evidentiary value or items that no longer need to be retained by APD.

As a result of the reports findings, APD leadership has said that they are “extremely concerned about the contents of the report and are taking steps to remedy the situation.” Currently they are working on projects funded by the General Fund and grants throughout the department that aim to remedy training, equipment and infrastructure issues listed in the report. Police Chief Salvador said that he “expects to see results in the very near future.”

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