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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 quarter of 2018, the Billings Police Department’s evidence facility received 5,148 items and logged out 7,907 items:

  • 64 items were shipped to an online auction; proceeds will go to the city general fund.
  • 72 items were donated to local charities.
  • 1,393 items were returned to owners.
  • 6,378 items were destroyed on authority of the city or county attorney.

“It’s the first quarter where we had more stuff leave than came in,” said Lt. Mitch Hart, noting that the building opened in 2004. Hart was assigned three months ago to supervise the operation and its five civilian technicians.

The 6,238-square-foot building holds evidence for criminal cases as well as found property that isn’t connected with a crime. The found items usually are held for 90 days while BPD tries to contact the owners to pick up their property.

Hart’s assignment is one of the changes made since the theft of narcotic pills by a city employee came to light in February. That employee was fired and may face criminal charges. It was the second incident in the past four years of drug evidence being stolen by a civilian employee. Meanwhile, the department has been proposing space and security upgrades to the building for years, but the City Council has not approved plans for a new building that could cost $4 million.

The department and local architects are working to reduce the cost. The City Council removed the evidence facility from the citywide Capital Improvement Plan early this year because of cost concerns and desire for further discussion. City Administrator Bruce McCandless told The Gazette he plans to bring an evidence facility proposal to the City Council again this summer after the annual budget is completed.

Security deficiencies in the drug and gun storage area allowed the latest employee theft to go undetected for months, until an upcoming audit prompted the employee to confess to her supervisor.

Since then, staff from the city and county attorney offices have been working with the evidence staff to cull out items that are no longer needed. Chief Rich St. John has assigned injured officers on light duty to help reduce the old evidence backlog. Working together, the officers, attorney assistants and evidence technicians have reduced the backlog of old stuff — making room for new stuff.

Hart improved some policies. For example, now no one is permitted to enter the drug and gun evidence locker alone. Two employees must swipe their electronic badges and those swipes are recorded and frequently reviewed. So Hart will find out if someone violates the two-person policy. However, the building still doesn’t have the dual-key system that would lock out a solo attempt at entry.

A visitor to the evidence building will find shelves crammed with boxes and bags of various sizes and shapes. The air is stuffy and the work stations are in odd places, apparently located where space was available, not necessarily for efficiency. There’s a refrigerator for rape kits that will be sent to the state crime lab in Missoula, videos from police cameras, golf bags, bicycles, BB guns, backpacks and even a grandfather clock. Some homicide evidence dates to the 1960s.

The solution isn’t just more space. With the volume of criminal cases and found property processed, housed and returned here, security and efficiency are paramount.

The BPD has generated some bad news lately, but that doesn’t change the need for this city of 110,000 to have a state-of-the-art evidence processing and holding facility. In fact, the pill theft spotlights security gaps that the department wants to correct.

Money is definitely an issue, but so is public safety. The BPD standard must be raised to meet national best practices. We call on the city council to support that goal by acting this year.