Washington County DA seeks testing of borough of California police
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The Washington County district attorney is calling on police in the borough of California to submit to polygraph and drug testing to determine if any were responsible for cash and drugs that are missing from an evidence room.
A five-page report released by county District Attorney Steven Toprani this week details some of the "sloppy and inaccurate" record keeping at the California Borough Police Department, including packages of evidence that were emptied of marijuana, cash and drug paraphernalia.
The report, drafted in early February by county Detectives J. Michael Aaron and Mark Dorsey, also was critical of the department for failing to submit rape kits to laboratories for testing and for policies, such as one that allowed all police officers to have keys to the department's evidence room.
"The police department management/leadership was irresponsible, if not incompetent, and in examining the records which do exist and the property stored in the facility, it is apparent that these traits have been pervasive through the entire department," the report said.
The report was triggered in late January, when Rick Encapera, former police chief, was demoted by the borough for undisclosed reasons. He has since been appointed as a school resource officer with the 18-member department.
The department's acting police chief, Tracy Vitale, said she has found computer records indicating that the missing evidence was destroyed, though procedures were not properly followed regarding documentation.
"I don't feel there was any wrongdoing," Chief Vitale said. "I don't think anything was taken or stolen. I just feel it was poor record keeping."
Mayor Casey Durdines agreed, saying it was "hard to believe" that any current officers deliberately stole or removed evidence.
"I personally feel we have a lot of good officers here," he said.
Mr. Toprani said he had previously met with Mr. Encapera about record-keeping problems and thought it "prudent" to launch an audit of evidence and procedures.
He obtained a court order from county Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky but said records were "so incomplete" that investigators couldn't complete an audit.
Instead, Mr. Toprani said his detectives did a three-day inventory of the department's evidence room, where "the vast majority" of items in the room were improperly identified or missing.
The report indicated that at least $1,646 was missing from six evidence envelopes, along with several hundred grams of marijuana, a digital scale used for weighing drugs, and drug pipes.
Evidence sheets were missing, the report said. Evidence from a marijuana-growing operation was found unsecured in the borough's public works garage.
"It is hard to imagine how much additional evidence/property may be missing," the report said.
The report recommends a criminal investigation and notes that the matter is being referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It also suggests the borough establish drug screening and polygraph testing for "all sworn employees of the police department," to investigate the irregularities and missing items.
Mayor Durdines and Chief Vitale said they support the recommendations and will work with employee unions to establish drug screening for all borough employees, including the mayor and members of council.
Chief Vitale has instituted major changes, including a reorganized evidence facility and new procedures to ensure evidence is properly stored and maintained. She is the only member of the force with a key to the facility.
Mr. Toprani said his office is continuing the investigation and said "we stand ready to prosecute" anyone implicated in wrongdoing.
Mr. Toprani said he knows of no criminal case that has been affected by the poor record keeping and missing evidence, but said he's concerned that the issue could hinder cases that have yet to be tried. Chief Vitale said her records indicate that missing evidence came from cases that were dropped or adjudicated.
"It's certainly something we take very seriously," said Mr. Toprani, who established an evidence review panel last year with 10 local police chiefs, which sets standards for collecting, maintaining and recording evidence. He has also empaneled a first-ever countywide grand jury to hear evidence in corruption cases.
The problems in California are the latest in a series of law enforcement-related investigations that have been launched by Mr. Toprani since he took office in 2008, with the promise to clean up corruption countywide.
He defeated longtime District Attorney John C. Pettit, who left office under a cloud of suspicion as the target of a U.S. Justice Department investigation.
So far, Mr. Toprani has charged five police officers from various departments with corruption, including one last fall who was accused of selling drugs from his police cruiser and tipping off drug dealers to upcoming raids.
"One of my goals has been to come up with policies and procedures that elevate law enforcement in this county," he said.
First Published April 15, 2010 12:00 am