Cracks in our Foundation | Leaking Evidence
We have to face some unfortunate facts about our job. Some people can’t, or don’t maintain the level of integrity that our profession requires. They probably enter into this work with the best of intentions. They don’t know that on some far off, glib day, they are going to make a decision that changes everything they know up to that point. From that point, it’s only a matter of time before they get discovered. But the damage they cause in the meantime harms everyone else who works with them, and works after them.
Unfortunately we have to bear the burden. They may be held accountable in a different manner, but the rebuilding of reputation among professionals and the public alike is up to us. For those that remain, the penalty is far greater than the prison sentence our former coworker may have received. We’re talking about leaks in evidence in this feature, and how they truly damage our agency.
Digital Evidence Leaks from the Crime Scene
There has been a number of these digital evidence incidents in the recent past, but none are as infamous as the photos leaked from the Columbine shooting. Over 60 photos were leaked out of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office by unknown persons. At the time, members of 34 different law enforcement agencies were in regular attendance at the Sheriff’s Office, the headquarters of the on-going investigation after the shooting at the school occurred.
To date there has been no information as to who released the photos or how they did it. The Sheriff scheduled polygraph investigations over the matter, and treated the investigation as a criminal theft.
Consequently, Sheriff John Stone was marred by the leak, and along with other perceived mishandlings in the investigation of Columbine did not run for re-election, as community pressure for him to resign continued to mount. This is exactly the kind of result from digital evidence leaking that we can expect, and it should be the reason we want to stop this from happening.
Physical Evidence Leaks from the Evidence Room
We’ve talked about this issue before in terms of prevention, but the case example we have is an alarming reminder of why layers of safeguards are tremendously important for agencies wanting to protect their physical evidence.
Ronald Thomas, once a Sergeant in the Louisiana State Police was part of their Evidence Unit, and operated out of a facility located in Monroe. One day a tip came in about Thomas, that he had delivered a duffle bag full of cocaine to a known cocaine dealer in the area. The dealer, Leonard Dunn, was a nephew by marriage to Thomas. The informant had been present at both Dunn’s and Thomas’ homes during transactions, and after being present at Thomas’ home several times, they realized that Thomas was a law enforcement officer.
From that tip a lengthy investigation transpired, that included monitoring of Thomas’ phone calls and texts, a GPS device attached to his government vehicle, as well as cameras at both residences, and in the evidence vault where he worked.
The investigation revealed that Thomas was taking drug evidence meant for destruction, typically the night before it was to be destroyed, and taking unknown quantities out, and replacing them with similar weight. The removal of this evidence in this fashion, even if he hadn’t been stealing the items, was against agency policy. But in this scenario there was very little oversight in the evidence rooms that LSP maintains within the State, and at the time supervisors of the evidence staff all worked out of the State Capitol, Alexandria, approximately 96 miles away.
Meanwhile, the transactions that Dunn was conducting certified who was involved, and to what level. Dunn made it a point in numerous transactions to brag that his uncle, though he never named him specifically, was able to provide a lavish amount of narcotics almost at will.
They also found that Thomas was stealing time, claiming to be on the clock and working, when fishing all day, or meeting up with girlfriends at hotels. He also maintained a girlfriend at his bank of choice, where he structured his cash deposits from drug sales in a way that avoided federal reporting guidelines.
Additionally, his wife, Olivia Thomas, was involved on the cash end of this conspiracy, stashing bulk cash under the direction of her husband, especially in the time frame immediately prior to his arrest, where he stated by phone that he was “nervous” about the fact that investigators approached him stating they had an arrest warrant for his nephew.
After a year-long operation, Thomas was arrested and faced 20 years in prison for the litany of charges he racked up, that including money laundering, filing false public records, narcotics distribution, and of course theft. The final tally indicated Thomas stole cocaine in an amount that equaled nearly one million dollars in street value. His lawyer negotiated a plea deal that reduced the fines he was facing of 92,000 to 15,000, and only serving one year in prison, with the remaining 19 suspended.
This is yet another example where an officer takes advantage of the evidence room, and the sentence doesn’t match the crime. This is typical of these kinds of cases, and surely does not reflect on all officers, but it should show that in the end, the agency is the one that is left to bear the burden in such incidents, not the person who committed the crime.
The most recent, and biggest example that can be discussed on this topic is the Buck knife found at the former Simpson estate. In 2003, an officer working a security detail across the street from the property received the knife from a demolition worker, preparing the home for tear down. The officer kept the knife for himself, and even framed it. His find wasn’t discovered until he called the evidence room, inquiring about the case number, which he intended to engrave into the knife. That’s when he was ordered to hand the knife over to personnel.
There was talk of this officer receiving discipline, but it has yet to materialize, with many former LAPD employees saying it will never happen.
Meanwhile, the knife in question was found to not be evidence of any crime. Which means it was all for nothing, but it brought up an old discussion about LAPD that always finds a way to revisit certain circles, about their lack of professionalism in handling evidence. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but moments like these allow people, even those with accepted professional backgrounds, to place critical blame on the agency, and then go on to citing a ‘historical’ context to mishandling of evidence. How many times do you think a minor traffic stop turns into a verbal unloading about mishandling evidence for officers in LA? We bet more than we could ever be aware of.
While this particular example ended up involving non-evidence, the fact that these issues are brought in the face of non-evidence, imagine what would happen if actual evidence had been discovered in this manner? How long would personnel and your agency’s reputation last? How long before community relations are strained beyond repair? How long would it take to recover? What would it take to recover?
True Costs to Leaking Evidence
The true costs have been touched on in the introduction. If only one word could sum up the cost, its reputation. But it’s everyone’s reputation, to include the agency as a whole.
The loss of an untainted investigation and prosecution is the least of our worries. When officers are responding to domestic violence calls and are badgered to the umpteenth degree regarding whether the event will wind up on the nightly news or not, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when listing the impact to community relations or future investigations.
The agency will be questioned every time they are on the stand, including personnel that was not even related to the original incident. That’s a problem. Because even good officers can misspeak on the stand, or in other deliberations that can place undue scrutiny upon them when it’s not at all warranted. Placing them in a scenario like this can be damaging, we hope the judge would have the common sense to not all an officer to be attacked for unrelated manners, but we know it’s never beyond defense to “introduce an alternative” during trial, that really has nothing to do with the facts.
Couple that with the weary eye of prosecutors, State Investigative staff, and post-trial personnel, and it’s clear that a leak by one is viewed as a leak by all. If the issue goes unspoken for, you can imagine how long this cloud of suspicion over your agency will last.
Solving Evidence Leaks
Envisioning the costs of the Thomas investigation can be staggering. Between personnel, equipment, and all the paper involved in affidavits, probable causes statements, warrants, and other court documents, it’s clear that catching an evidence leak costs considerably more than preventing them.
In the first example, having tight policy and supervision on a crime scene is imperative. We need scene integrity, if we’re going to have evidentiary integrity. Limiting the role of each person on scene, and holding the people accountable at the scene for staying within their scope is the foundation of getting us through the scene to the evidence room.
Assigning a specific group to tagging evidence back at the office, along with categorizing, and filling in paperwork is also an option to ensure that the first entry of the evidence is conducted smoothly, and without undue interruptions or exposure.
The use of an electronic log that can maintain a list of each person who had access to evidence at any particular time is important. Because if we do have to go back and review, or investigate a leak, it gives you a much clearer path to who to talk to, about what, and what to potentially look for.
Once evidence is logged in, being able to set access rights, in case evidence needs to be checked back out for review or further documentation. Going back to our electronic log, if that program has the ability of selecting what personnel can access a particular item, then we have a great tool to control access, which further reduces potential leaks.
The use of cameras in an evidence room are a good thing. We don’t want personnel taking advantage of a situation because they become desperate and we trust them, sight unseen. They may very well be trustworthy, but an audit process will show mistakes, and video footage is how we identify where those mistakes happened. And if something criminal happened, it’s that easy to trace back to what happened, and where things went wrong.
Having localized supervision of an evidence room is important. Granted, most agencies are small in nature and this is not necessarily a big consideration. However, it’s important to look at your current situation and decide if changing to a more active supervisory role is needed. Active supervision can be the difference between a superb and lackluster evidence room.
In short, the damage of leaking evidence, be it physical evidence or digital evidence, lies in the loss of reputation to investigate, to charge, to detain, to arrest, and overall for a law enforcement agency to function at its core. Fixing policy, like removing all cell phones from crime scenes, unless pre-approved by supervision, or designating specific roles to personnel, that are unable to be re-assigned until cleared by supervision, are all keys to fixing problems, and with some practice are easy to adopt in the grand scheme. However, no matter how many changes are made to policy and how we work, no matter how many safeguards are in place, when one officer compromises our integrity, all officers have been compromised. The effect may not be the same for each individual, but rest assured that all will feel it in some way, and the agency will feel it the most.
Don’t be the person that ruins reputation. Hold yourself, and your peers to a higher standard. Even if others don’t. We can and will make lots of mistakes, that should be allowed. Intentional compromising of evidence should not be tolerated, and should be punished harshly. For now, the penalties for those that do it are virtually non-existent, but are always higher for those not involved.
Be safe out there!