Scottsdale police evidence backlog could prove costly

The Scottsdale Police Department’s evidence storage unit has accrued more than 54,000 additional items in the past three years, an expansion that could force the city to pay for a larger storage facility if changes aren’t made to process items more quickly, according to a city audit.

Officials say that delayed officer reviews of the items, a lack of manpower and new protocols have slowed the process of destroying or returning property and evidence.

A growing backlog could necessitate a new multimillion-dollar facility to capture the overflow in the next several years.

The May audit found that each year from 2011 through 2013, the net inventory increased by thousands — about 22,000 in 2011, 17,000 in 2012 and 15,000 in 2013.

As of May, the facility contained 181,000 items, but nearly 82,000 of these items had received court dispositions by February, meaning they were legally eligible to be destroyed, returned or sold.

But officer authorization is also required for a release, and this was only obtained on 7,700 items, with another 2,500 items put on hold, the audit found.

According to the audit, dispositions made in the past two years have, on average, taken twice as long as the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies’ six-month standard.

Auditors estimate at this pace, a new facility would have to be built nine years from now to hold the evidence. City Auditor Sharron Walker said the team did not assess the cost of a new facility, but Walker said it would surely be in the “millions of dollars.”

Evidence Control Manager Kay Smith agrees with this assessment.

“Right now, I’m currently releasing and destroying 55 percent of what I take in,” she said. “If I’m keeping up that process of bringing in this many and only releasing 55 percent, it’s basic math that I would run out of room to store it.”

Smith said a new half-time position to help pick up the pace has been approved, but auditors say the heavier burden is on police officers to authorize item dispositions in a timelier manner.

“The big picture is a matter of prioritizing this into an officer’s workload,” Smith said. “It is not just the city trying to avoid a financial expense; it’s getting property back to the rightful owners.”

Often, even locating the correct officer for a disposition is time-consuming, the audit notes. The Property and Evidence Unit receives a weekly report on case dispositions, but the report did not include the responsible officer, and about 36 percent of the evidence items did not have an officer listed.

Scottsdale officials say they are open to implementing different ways to help simplify the process.

Officer names have now been added to the weekly disposition report. Sgt. Mark Clark said police staff has asked supervisors to allocate time so officers can review their evidence lists and sign off on items that can be released.

But some prolonged procedures can’t be avoided.

A new, meticulous system of tracking everything from quarter candy machines and skateboards to guns, drugs and DNA is a necessity. After a critical 2004 audit, Scottsdale Police moved into a new facility in 2009 and began bar-coding the property in its possession and consolidating items, Walker said.

The department additionally now participates in a national ballistics program that determines whether firearms have been used in another crime, and city code dictates how the department can get rid of certain types of items.

“It will tell you that anything under $25, I am able to, what I term, ‘smash and trash,’ as long as it doesn’t have an owner that I’m trying to seek out,” Smith said.

Walker said the auditors found only a few record-keeping inaccuracies during the process and commended the department for its security efforts.

“Overall, they have pretty good controls in place,” she said.

Clark said the bottom line is that Scottsdale police are handling more evidence every year.

“We are always looking for ways to make the process more streamlined, but the built-in checks and balances that slow the process down cannot be changed,” Clark said.

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