For NC evidence association, Asheville’s problems are a cautionary tale

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Evidence managers convene to address challenges and fixes; state crime lab director pushes for expanded work in WNC

Angie Shuff, the forensics manager for the Durham Police Department, is president of the N.C. Association for Property and Evidence. Here, she discusses her department’s recent move to a larger evidence storage facility with attendees of the state’s evidence association. Jon Elliston/Carolina Public Press

When a statewide association of evidence managers gathered last week, no officers from Asheville were present. But the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room woes were impossible to ignore, and not just because of the bad press the department has endured.

Many in the room were aware that a trusted former member of the association — an expert from Asheville who spoke at one of its 2011 conferences — had since been kicked out because of the situation in Asheville.

The N.C. Association for Property and Evidence is a relatively new nonprofit group formed in 2010. Its 129 members are drawn from police and sheriffs’ departments, the State Bureau of Investigation and other law agencies, as well as private forensics contractors and legal groups seeking to protect both crime victims and alleged criminals.

At the association’s biannual conference, held Oct. 15-16 at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, avoiding situations like Asheville’s was high on the agenda.

Early in the proceedings, Angie Shuff, the Durham Police Department’s forensics manager and the association’s president, showed three videos about the APD’s evidence room. Two were news reports from WLOS-TV that detailed this summer’s revelations of the disarray at the APD, where an as-yet unknown amount of cash, guns and valuables had reportedly gone missing.

The third was a music video for “Evidence Room,” a tongue-in-cheek song recorded by an Asheville-based act in response to the controversy. (The chorus: “Evidence room, evidence room, things are getting messy in the evidence room.”)

The tune elicited some chuckles, but Shuff was quick to note the gravity of Asheville’s evidence room problems.

“I know the video is kind of funny, but really, this whole thing is not a laughing matter,” she said. “One of the reasons our organization is so important in this state is to hopefully help prevent things like this from happening.”

Of course, it’s not just an Asheville problem. As Carolina Public Press recently reported, the looting of evidence by some of those sworn to protect it is a periodic occurrence across the state.

New approaches to old — and mounting — evidence problems

The N.C. Association for Property and Evidence, founded in 2010, is providing a new level of connections and training for the state’s evidence professionals. Image courtesy of the NCAPE.

The potential for mismanagement and theft was hardly the only challenge cited at the conference. Association members also spoke of struggles with under-staffing and quick turnover, lack of storage space for preserving evidence, and ever-shifting standards and procedures for retention and disposal of key items.

The NCAPE’s mission is “to promote education and increase the level of professionalism of personnel associated with the proper collection, preservation, storage, processing and disposal of property and evidence within the state of North Carolina, through cooperation and sharing of information with individual agencies,” according to its bylaws.

The association is the brainchild of Neil Woodcock, a longtime officer of the N.C. Department of Public Safety who retired in late 2009.

One of his last major assignments, he recounted in an interview, was to help the state meet a new federal requirement for storing rape evidence kits for victims who wished to do so anonymously, in the event they wanted to press charges at some point thereafter.

At planning meetings for the initiative, Woodcock encountered medical professionals, lawyers and victims’ advocates, he said, but “there was nobody speaking for the property and evidence community” — the very personnel that would be tasked with handling and storing this crucial body of evidence.

To add a voice to such discussions, Woodcock launched the association right after his retirement. The group “has grown faster than I projected it would,” he said. And it’s already making an impact, members asserted.

All too often, they said, evidence employees work out of sight and out of mind, and are consequently undervalued.

Traditionally, “the concept of our job has been kind of on the bottom end of the totem pole for law enforcement,” Shuff said. “It’s kind of the job that nobody else wants to do, and it’s not seen as very important, or at least it hasn’t been in the past.”

At the same time, she said, the importance of running sound evidence rooms — and the cost of not doing so — is becoming more evident, and in the meantime, the association has helped pool resources and expertise among once-isolated specialists who have much to learn from each other.

Portia Sidberry, the Durham Police Department’s evidence supervisor, said that association members have seized on new info-sharing opportunities.

“We network a lot, and we send a lot of group emails to each other with our questions,” she said. “We share general orders, SOPs (standard operating procedures). We ask, ‘What kind of form do you use for this?’ ‘How do you do this?’ It’s good to find people who are going through what you are going through.”

The weight of evidence

During one break in the conference, members commiserated about some of their profession’s unique quirks. The question “What are the strangest items in your evidence and property room?” was met with quick answers.

“Prosthetic limbs.” “An enormous canoe.” “Fifteen faucets that were stolen from somewhere.” “Two big giraffe statues.” (The latter stolen from a Pier 1 Imports furnishing store.)

At another point, some officers good-naturedly griped about the pungent aroma of certain types of drug evidence.

Back on official task, the speakers addressed topics ranging from how to give clear and accurate courtroom testimony to how to move and expand evidence storage areas, which are perpetually pushed for space.

One speaker who made a repeat appearance before the association was Christine Mumma, director of the Raleigh-based N.C. Center on Actual Innocence. Her group’s legal work has resulted in the release of nine N.C. inmates who were proven innocent with new looks at old evidence.

“Preservation of evidence impacts all aspects of the criminal justice system,” she stressed, calling it a process crucial to both convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent.

Mumma noted that evidence managers must note and work within a set of complex and shifting legal requirements, due to leaps in forensic science.

“The definition of what is biological (evidence) is going to change as science changes,” she noted. “Ten years ago, what was biological was very different from what is biological now.”

However the rules evolve, Mumma said, evidence professionals should keep track to ward off even unintended missteps that they could be ultimately be liable for.

John Wiggins, a recently retired N.C. Justice Academy instructor who taught evidence classes, drove home the point about the risks of doing this job wrong.

“The fact is, at some point in time, there’s going to be an example made of a law enforcement officer in this state, who’s going to be charged with a felony,” he told the conference. “It’s probably going to take that for all the chiefs and sheriffs to recognize just how serious your job is.”

Backlogged state lab seeks WNC expansion

Many attendees expressed frustration with delays in getting evidence returned from the N.C. State Crime Laboratory, which is grappling with severe backlogs.

“We have been shorthanded for a very long time,” Sara Clay, a manager at the lab, told the conference. Meanwhile, the number of evidence submissions has skyrocketed as new forms of toxicology and DNA identification are developed.

“Two years ago I had 22 analysts, now I’m down to nine,” Clay said. “We’re a year-and-a-half behind on turning around homicides and rapes, and I’ve got 75 ‘rush cases’ in my queue as of right now.”

The backlog for processing evidence from property crimes is an estimated two-and-a-half years, she said.

Peppered with questions on how best to submit evidence and expedite processing, Clay noted that a newly updated edition of the SBI’s official evidence manual, which specifies how all types of evidence should be handled and submitted, has just been released. (See the manual in its entirety below.)

Judge Joseph John, director of the state crime lab, also spoke of the backlogs, and summarized plans to rein them in.

The lab’s staffing shortage is exacerbated because often analysts have to travel to testify at DWI and similar trials at locations far from Raleigh.

At present, for example, the lab’s western branch, in Skyland, is not equipped to do the necessary toxicological work for such cases. Every time an analyst has to travel from Raleigh to Western North Carolina to testify, they lose at least a day away from the lab.

Judge Joseph John, director of the N.C. State Crime Laboratory, explains how the number of evidence items submitted for tests is outpacing the lab’s capacity. Jon Elliston/Carolina Public Press

That’s something John hopes to change.

“Getting toxicology in the western region has to be the number-one priority, because of the volume of the cases and the distances involved,” he said. “So that’s one thing we’re going to be pushing in the General Assembly.”

On Feb. 1, 2013, John noted, he’s due to file a plan for expanding lab capacity in WNC with the General Assembly.

Lessons learned from Asheville’s evidence problem

The work of evidence personnel often goes unnoticed, Woodcock noted in an interview after the conference.

“As long as things are going well, these guys are way back in the corner somewhere,” he said. “But when things go bad, they go really bad.”

The Asheville Police Department’s evidence room, he said, seemed to be well run. At its March 2011 conference, the association hosted Asheville’s longtime but former evidence room manager, Lee Smith, as a featured speaker. The topic of Smith’s talk was how best to conduct audits and inventories of evidence rooms.

At that conference, Smith distributed copies of the APD’s evidence room guidelines. On paper, they appeared professional and up to code. (See a copy of that document below.)

One month later, the news broke that Asheville’s evidence room had major problems, and that Smith had been suspended in January 2011 before resigning in February. None of this was known to the association at the time of Smith’s presentation.

Association members say the subsequent revelations left them feeling hoodwinked, but served as a reminder of their ongoing challenges.

“The lesson you learn from that is, you don’t trust anybody, even the guy in charge,” Woodcock said. “Your internal audits have to be real — you can’t just do a perfunctory approach. And you can’t just send the head guy’s best friend in there to check. You’ve got to have integrity in the system.”

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About the Author

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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