This article is written by KUT's Austin City Hall reporting partner, the Austin Monitor.
A city audit found that drugs and firearms confiscated by the Austin Police Department are in some cases not adequately protected, with drugs sometimes stored in cardboard boxes outdoors.
In response, APD officials say they are re-evaluating the department’s evidence control policies.
The City Auditor's Office presented its audit of the APD's Evidence Disposition Unit to the Council Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday morning. Though they didn't find evidence of tampering, theft or misuse of drug and firearm evidence, what they did find was sobering.
Assistant City Auditor Patrick Johnson explained the audit revealed “controls in place are not sufficient to provide reasonable assurance that such items are adequately protected.”
Johnson said that auditors found that the department reports that items are destroyed “before they are actually destroyed.” Complicating matters, said Johnson, was the fact that the items were not inventoried again before they were destroyed – and over the time the process was studied, there was a long time between the time they were last inventoried and the time that they were ultimately destroyed.
Illustrating the auditor's report were pictures of stacked cardboard boxes buckling under the weight of each other. Evidence tape intended to seal the boxes was shown peeling away, leaving gaping holes.
The boxes contained illegal drugs, evidence seized by the police. APD Chief of Field Support Services Ed Harris explained that a scheduled burn of the evidence in East Texas was canceled when the facility closed unexpectedly. This left the department with nowhere to house the evidence inside, and it was instead stacked in a secure outdoor area.
Harris told the committee that the drugs remained outside “for several weeks.”
“That was a circumstance where everything went wrong,” said Harris. “Under no circumstances would we ever want to do that again.”
Harris explained that with no room in the temperature-controlled indoor facility, the boxes were stacked in a temporary area in the parking lot of that facility that was subject to the elements. Over time, condensation worked to peel away the seals, which then separated from the boxes.
“Boxes with broken seals were not given extra scrutiny before destruction,” said Johnson.
Harris said that, though the city purchased a 20,000 square foot facility intended to house evidence four years ago, the department needed about $600,000 more to make that space secure enough to house drug evidence. He said that they had asked for that money during the past two budget cycles but it had not materialized.
As explained by Harris, the procedure for destroying drugs is lengthy, and subject to the whims of the courts, the city, and scheduling by the two facilities that APD uses to destroy the drugs. Both of those facilitates are located in East Texas, and a trip there requires a bit of planning.
“It's very costly for us to go on burn, so we don't take five pounds of marijuana down to East Texas with a five-person police escort,” said Harris. “We have to make sure it's worth our while before we make that trip. It's pure poundage... When we have enough court orders that say we can destroy these drugs, and we have enough poundage, then we arrange a trip to East Texas.”
Harris explained that the department is now looking into changing that practice and would establish a threshold for drug disposal, if possible.
“We could establish a threshold, but say we have 4,000 pounds of narcotics ready to burn and we contact the vendor and the place is not available to us. We'll have to hold on to that stuff,” said Harris.
The audit also found that evidence control policies related to firearm destruction and conversion “are not sufficient to ensure that all firearms are being disposed of as intended.” Though they didn't find boxes of guns outside, the processes used to dispose of the firearms concerned the auditor's office in similar ways, procedurally.
Johnson explained that both found and forfeited firearms were being converted for department use, though policy said that found firearms should be destroyed. APD management said this was an error in policy, and the policy would be corrected to allow for both to be converted.
The audit also revealed that firearms that had been converted for use were marked as destroyed and that conversions were approved by people other than Assistant Chief as required by policy. Management said they would correct these problems as well.
Finally, the audit found some problems with inventorying non-contraband items. They recommended that the Purchasing Office work with APD to clarify and document those procedures as well. City Management concurred with the findings and recommendations.
In a memo to the city auditor, Police Chief Art Acevedo wrote that he concurred with the findings of the audit, and was taking the necessary steps to address the issues the audit found. An attached plan outlined steps the department planned to take, or was in the process of taking to address the deficiencies. These steps include revising the current process for clarity and compliance with state law, instituting random sampling of evidence headed for disposal by a different department, and establishing triggers for evidence disposal.