Photo by Max Cooper
More information has emerged about the oversight of the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room and what might be required to fix the state of disarray auditor Mike Wright revealed in his July 24 report to Asheville City Council.
From 1991 until his resignation last February after being placed on “investigative suspension,” William Lee Smith managed the evidence room. At the time of his resignation, Smith was overseen by Capt. Sarah Benson, head of the support division. In December 2010, Benson and then-Chief Bill Hogan reviewed the evidence room and found “the entire area was neat, clean, and well organized.” The report, a stark contrast to the situation Wright found after the room was sealed that April due to missing evidence, matched others over the years that found no major issues. But Wright reported items piled on the floor, a lack of a shelf numbering system in many areas, thousands of un-filed records and bankers’ boxes with envelopes of cash. To date, Smith has not been charged with any crime.
How that dire of a situation escaped the notice of APD commanders is one of the unanswered questions about the problem.
After Council approved the audit, Capt. Wade Wood, head of the APD’s administrative division, was put in charge of the evidence room, replacing Benson.
“The move was made sometime around April 12, when Council approved the contract,” city spokesperson Dawa Hitch writes to Xpress. “As you have seen, the work produced under the Blueline [Wright’s auditing firm] contract was a significant undertaking and contract management typically falls under the administrative captain.” The new evidence room, with seven staff, has more than triple the number of the old.
But long-term, Wright says the APD will need eight to 12 employees dedicated both to finishing the task of dealing with the old evidence room mess (which could take over two years in its own right) and ensuring that similar problems don’t happen at the new.
“They’ll need that to keep the new one up to acceptable standards and bring the old one up to speed,” he tells Xpress, noting that coordination with the court system and properly disposing of old evidence are “constant challenges for any agency.”
Wright wouldn’t comment on whether he believed the APD’s oversight policies were sufficient or where, specifically, a breakdown occurred.
“Any property or evidence facility needs proper oversight and internal, thorough audits by command staff,” he says, adding that the hopes the APD would take International Association of Property and Evidence standards to heart in reforming its procedures.
For a city that’s had tough budget times in recent years, the number of new personnel Wright recommends may pose a challenge. New Chief William Anderson has pledged higher standards and the APD is currently searching for a new evidence-room manager, but the city has specifically declined to name a the number of permanent staff they’ll hire to oversee the new process.
Meanwhile, both the city of Asheville and District Attorney Ron Moore are facing a lawsuit from local media (including Xpress) for their failure to release Wright’s audit. According to a July 31 report in the Citizen-Times, Mayor Terry Bellamy claimed that she’d only become aware of a clause requiring that the city get a redacted copy of the audit the previous week.
That part of the contract was also a major point in the lawsuit, which Council was briefed on in closed session at its June 26 meeting. On July 24, Council members did call for the release of Wright’s recommendations.