Published: Friday, December 21, 2007

Locked up

20 years later, some evidence is still under lock and key

By Chris Fyall
Enterprise editor
Acting Assistant Chief of Police Debbie Smith (right) flips through a log book of all visitors cleared to enter the evidence room (background), as it ...


Acting Assistant Chief of Police Debbie Smith (right) flips through a log book of all visitors cleared to enter the evidence room (background), as it is guarded by property officer Lynn Mandeville (left), Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007 at the Edmonds Police Department.

Lynn Mandeville sits at a small desk in the basement of the Edmonds police station and she waits -- kind of.
As property officer responsible for cataloguing up to 1,500 new items a year, and managing many thousands more as they flow in and out of her department, she doesn't have to wait long.
"No, there isn't much waiting," Mandeville said recently. "There's a constant stream of stuff."
The property room handles all materials seized by Edmonds police during investigations.
Evidence can range as far and wide as one might imagine, and perhaps even farther than that: lost bikes and drug paraphernalia, flower pots and handguns, the ashes of a dead dog and 20-year evidence related to unsolved homicides.
While every piece of evidence has its own label and is tracked separately, the guns, the drugs and the cash attract the most attention. In Edmonds, as with most other cities, they are stored in a locked, adjoining room.
Paul Watkins, formerly one of the top officers in the Lynnwood police department, recently pled guilty to stealing items seized in criminal investigations. FBI prosecutors allege he stole between $70,000 and $120,000, two grams of cocaine and a handgun over many years.
Watkins' crimes were criminal conduct, and not related to the procedures put in place in Lynnwood, officials have maintained. Watkins filled out paperwork improperly, which disguised the fact that he had stolen items which were supposed to be put into Lynnwood's property room.
Obviously, events like the Watkins investigation attract attention. Edmonds police know that.
"The evidence room is a real hot button with any law enforcement agency," police spokesman Sgt. Don Anderson said recently. "It is something that you have to keep really tight controls over. And we always have."
Mandeville and Debbie Smith, Edmonds' acting assistant police chief, recently explained the department's procedures, oversights and process of internal and external audits.
"We are ahead of the game as far as I'm concerned," said Smith, who is manages the room but who isn't one of the police department's three people with a key. If Smith wants to get into the room, she must be accompanied, just like everybody else.
In November 2003, Edmonds police hired an outside expert in property room procedures. In 2003 and again in 2005, Edmonds conducted a complete inventory of the property room.
Every six months, Edmonds conducts an internal audit of the room, rotating the auditor and selecting the individual randomly, Smith said.
An internal audit in Lynnwood this summer led to the discovery of Watkins' crimes, press reports show.
Any item that leaves Edmonds' property room -- whether it is headed to court, or used in an investigation, or being returned to its rightful owner -- must be signed for repeatedly, and if it should return quickly but doesn't, Mandeville asks after it, she said.
Edmonds' records management system is comprised of stickers and labels, and not barcodes, which would be more cutting edge, Smith conceded.
"It is a lot of detail. It is repetitive and tedious, but you have to keep it up," said Mandeville, who said the audits and oversight insure she is being watched. She finds comfort in that, she said.
"I do not expect to be 100 percent trusted. I expect to be watched," she said. "It (creates) a peace of mind. There's tremendous liability back here. I like knowing other people are watching."
Smith makes sure people are watching her, too.
Whenever she sends e-mail asking for property to get moved, she carbon-copies a random series of people involved with the property room, just to keep everybody watching everybody.
Keeping many people -- and random people -- informed keeps the process harder to cheat, she said.
"We have to randomly ask people to look at all these things as a check and balance," she said. "We have a lot of those set up here."