When Madison Police detective Jeffery Hughes crashed his car last month, first responders discovered a bag of heroin on the passenger seat. The drug wasn't in just any bag; it was in an evidence bag.
Following the crash, which put Hughes in critical condition where he remains, Madison police suspect that Hughes has stolen heroin from the department's evidence room on at least 10 occasions.
Madison police have since revised their evidence-checkout policy.
Oregon police chief and former president of the Wisconsin Police Chiefs Association Doug Pettit, says such incidences are rare in Wisconsin.
Pettit recently spoke to The Daily Page about how evidence should be handled and whether incidents like this one are common.
The Daily Page: What does it say about a police department where an officer can so easily check drugs out of the evidence room?
Pettit: I'm not sure it's my place to comment on what it says about a police department, but I can tell you that the Madison Police Department is revisiting its evidence protocols in light of this.
There are industry standards in how evidence is maintained and preserved by police departments. There are national accreditation standards. There are state accreditation standards and best practices. There are policies out there that provide guidelines to law enforcement agencies as to what is the best way to preserve evidence in a police department facility.
Those things are available to anyone, and as you look at your practices and your protocols, those are the guidelines you look at as to how to basically write your policies.
What would be a reason an officer would need to check out drugs from an evidence room?
The only thing I can think of right off hand is if you needed it for a court case or something and the DA is requesting it or the judge wants to see it. The other two instances would be if you had to retest whatever drug it is or you were removing it from the evidence room after it was no longer needed and is going to be destroyed. Other than that, I don't know of any other reason.
So it would be unusual for an officer to check out drugs on ten occasions?
It would be unusual that a person would be able to check them out. Our protocols here are that the only person who can release property from the property room is the property manager. In our case, that's a lieutenant, so it's a command staff level person who has control of the evidence room. All of our property in the property room is bar coded, so that you can scan it then send up to a control sheet.
How do events like these affect the public's faith in its law enforcement agency?
Any time these types of things happen in law enforcement it gives a black eye to all law enforcement. We need public support now more than ever and any time we have folks who hold positions of public trust violate that trust it reflects on all of law enforcement. These types of incidents erode that support.
Do statutory requirements regulating the handling of evidence exist?
Why sure. Obviously, if the evidence is not properly maintained, you're going to lose that evidence.
Would you say this was an isolated incident or does it allude to something more endemic?
I would think it'd be more isolated, because I know there is one thing that concerns law enforcement executives a great deal and that is control of their evidence room. There have been a number of cases throughout time that folks have come to question related to property rooms and there's been a lot of guidelines put in place to ensure that those discrepancies don't happen in an evidence room. That's why we have the secure facility that we have.
Through my experience, I have not heard of this happening very often, even in the large agencies. In Wisconsin, this would be an anomaly.