Major policy changes for SPD after investigation into decades-long string of property room thefts
SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury Police Department says an 18-month long audit of their property room policies and procedures is finally complete. Now, they’re set to make some major changes.
“I very much appreciate the patience that everyone’s had with this process. It was drawn out exponentially due to COVID-19,” said Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan.
Two Decades of Theft
Police say over the course of 23 years, an employee of the department carried out a major theft. That prompted a thorough, lengthy investigation and audit of the police department. “We kept things too long. We should have destroyed more items at a much quicker pace. This was property that we did not need to hold onto, and I think that contributed to the situation where it was harder to track what we had on hand,” said Salisbury Mayor Jake Day.
It all started in February of 2020, when a Salisbury Police detective supervisor was asked to look into discrepancies in the property room. “Ultimately, he uncovered evidence that suggested a long-serving civilian employee of the police department had, on a number of occasions, stolen cash from envelopes that were being held in the SPD property room,” said Mayor Day.
In all, that employee was accused of stealing about $261,000 from April of 1997 to February of 2020. Criminal charges were brought against that employee, but she passed away before a jury could lock in a conviction. Mayor Day says the accused employee was battling financial struggles for years; something that wasn’t monitored through any kind of regular checks that might happen in a larger jurisdiction. “That process does not exist at the same level for the City of Salisbury and other local governments for city employees,” said Mayor Day.
The stolen money was set to go into the city’s seized property fund. But, Mayor Day says the city likely won’t pursue trying to get that money back from the suspect’s estate. He says that’s because the legal process would be too costly. “This is not the way you want to find a hole in your policy. But I’m confident that the plan, as designed, is another elevation of safeguards to protecting the taxpayers of Salisbury,” said Mayor Day.
The audit was carried out by SB & Company, an auditing and consulting company based on the East Coast. It was supervised by a multi-agency committee, including the Wicomico County State’s Attorney, the Maryland Office of Public Defender, the office of the State Prosecutor, Maryland State Police, and private attorneys.
Mayor Day says the process cost a little less than $70,000. The police department’s property division is now subject to more audits in the future. Mayor Day says that cost is expected to decrease over time. He says that’s because they pared down and organized the roughly 80,000 items in the property room.
When the investigation was first announced last year, concerns were raised over how the stolen money could impact past, present, and future investigations. “We took a look at all current cases and found that there was no negative impact. We had all items in property documented, tracked,” said Chief Duncan.
Findings Prompt Changes
Tuesday, Salisbury Police announced several major policy and procedure changes based off of nine findings of investigators. “It’s incredibly important, especially when it’s something that is discovered internally, when we discover it to be very transparent, be cooperative, and garner assistance and support from other agencies,” said Chief Duncan.
Training and requirements for all property and evidence employees is being beefed up. “They now undergo a year-long certification process, which is very beneficial. We’ve had other certification processes, but as we found out, they simply weren’t robust enough to accomplish our mission,” said Chief Duncan.
The police department’s property division will be switching over to a new, digital database called the SAFE system. Plus, supervisors must now sign off on each item prior to submission, and any changes to information about items entered into evidence storage must be corrected within 30 days. Large items, like bicycles, will be stored under video surveillance and alarm. The station also updated its locking system. 10% of all items in custody will be inspected quarterly. Chief Duncan is also now authorized to order inspections annually.
When it comes to removal and disposal of items, the new digital system notifies property room employees when items are due for disposal and/or destruction. Item packaging must be properly resealed when the items are taken out, and brought back to the property room. That must be kept track of with documentation on the chain of custody. Property room employees are also required to properly package and label items when they are first brought into storage.
All of those policies and procedures are subject to regular review going forward. Chief Duncan says she hopes the findings will pave the way for her department to regain public trust. “Any time that you’re dealing with an issue related to theft, as it’s connected to the functioning of a police department especially, I think that you definitely underscore what trust means,” said Chief Duncan.