Evidence storage must be improved

The San Luis Obispo County grand jury deserves credit for shining a light on one of the most critical factors in law enforcement: the management of evidence collected in criminal cases.

The jury talked with officials and toured evidence rooms in all seven cities, as well as the county, and made some disturbing findings. Among them:

The District Attorney’s Office doesn’t promptly respond to “destruction requests” from various agencies and, as a result, evidence has piled up, reducing available space. “The Sheriff’s Department, for example, has requests dating as far back as 2009 that have had no response,” the report says.

Arroyo Grande had the lowest “purge” rate in the county — defined as a comparison between the number of items logged in as evidence over the past five years and the number of items purged or disposed of during that period. “A higher percentage reflects a more efficient operation and use of space,” the report says. Arroyo Grande’s rate was just 20 percent. By contrast, Atascadero — a department praised for its evidence room practices — had an 87 percent purge rate, the highest in San Luis Obispo County.

Also in Arroyo Grande, the storage area for flammables was not appropriately ventilated, safety manuals were not provided to employees, and there was no established emergency evacuation plan.

In Morro Bay, the property/evidence technician position is a part-time job with no benefits, funded by a yearly grant in the amount of $17,000.

The much larger city of Paso Robles doesn’t even have a dedicated property/evidence technician. A supervising lieutenant and two detectives have been staffing the evidence room; the department planned to train two dispatchers to work the evidence room as well.

So many data entry errors had occurred in Paso Robles that it wasn’t possible to calculate the purge rate. Items that had been listed as “disposed” had actually been checked out for court or lab analysis. The jury also found that Paso Robles “does not store guns, money and drugs in a neat and orderly manner.”

While the Pismo Beach Police Department received high marks overall, the flammable storage area was not appropriately ventilated and there was no outside storage area for flammables.

The city of San Luis Obispo also was commended for many of its practices, including a purge rate of 82 percent. Also, the department was the only one in the county that had a manual filing system as backup, in case the computer system isn’t accessible. However, the jury observed that “numerous hand guns were piled on a shelf, limiting the orderly removal/examination of a particular firearm.”

While several deficiencies were found at the Sheriff’s Department — for starters, the evidence room simply isn’t big enough — the department is in the process of moving to a larger facility and is reorganizing the way evidence is stored.

Other departments also were making progress. The Paso Robles Police Department, for example, already was planning to conduct a full audit of the evidence room when the grand jury investigated. That’s a step in the right direction, but we believe it’s critical to follow up and ensure that every issue is addressed.

We understand that in this time of fiscal crisis, agencies have been forced to make cuts in every area, including law enforcement, but that’s no excuse for haphazard storage and maintenance of evidence.

We strongly urge elected officials in every jurisdiction to pay close attention to this well-researched report and its recommendations, and where necessary, to insist on a plan of corrective action.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.