Police evidence

In this May 2018 file photo, Lt. Mitch Hart shows lockers where police place process evidence at the evidence facility.

In the first half of this year, the Billings Police Department’s evidence facility logged in 10,434 items. In the same period, it released, destroyed, auctioned or donated 16,097 items.

That volume of work demands a secure, efficient facility and staff that meet national professional standards. The Billings City Council should vote tonight to commence design work on a facility that will meet the city’s needs for at least the next decade.

Proper evidence storage is key to the functioning of our criminal justice system. The BPD facility also serves the public by returning recovered stolen property and found property to the rightful owners. Those functions are hindered by the inadequate space now in use.

The evidence facility on Midland Road made news in February when a former civilian employee was fired for stealing drugs stored as evidence for criminal cases. It was the second such breach of security in four years.

This time, BPD responded by assigning a police lieutenant to supervise the evidence facility. Lt. Mitch Hart tightened security protocols, oversaw a comprehensive inventory, as well as the purge of thousands of items no longer needed for criminal cases or unclaimed by owners. As a result, years of accumulation of unneeded items has been significantly reduced. The purge was carried out with guidance from the city and county attorney's offices with officers on light duty temporarily assigned to the evidence facility.

Policies and procedures have improved, but the five-person evidence staff is still working in a woefully inadequate warehouse that lacks the technology and space to give the highest assurance that stored items will be preserved and secure.

Back in July, Police Chief Rich St. John outlined a five-year growth plan that would enlarge the facility and minimize immediate capital costs. The council was wise in directing the chief to return with a plan that would meet evidence storage needs for a decade or more.

That plan is on the agenda for the business meeting starting at 5:30 tonight in City Hall. The recommendation is designed to meet International Association for Property and Evidence standards for accreditation.

The 10-year growth plan that St. John recommends will require that the council appropriate about $300,000 now to design the 12,000-square-foot expansion of offices, storage and vehicle processing, along with a bigger vehicle impound lot, new entrance configuration, public parking, lighting and fencing. The plans should be ready for construction in fiscal 2020 and the council would have to decide then how to cover the $3.2 million projected construction cost.

The evidence facility upgrade must be a top priority. We cannot expect our local law enforcement to do their best work when the evidence storage is inadequate, unnecessarily time consuming and vulnerable to security breaches.

We call on the City Council to approve design funding tonight and to direct city staff to build the evidence facility into next year’s budget.

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