Plagued by a chronically full evidence warehouse that led to failed fire inspections, the Seattle Police Department wrongly destroyed more than 100 post-conviction DNA samples in 2018 as part of an effort to make space for incoming items of evidence, according to a recently released report detailing an audit by the Seattle Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Around the same time the DNA samples were destroyed, evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations was also purged, according to the 19-page report.
The audit found the warehouse — which failed fire inspections in 2016 and 2017 — was fast approaching capacity while SPD’s vehicle impound facility was already 100% full as of late October. Additionally, one of the department’s five precincts — the report doesn’t say which one — lacks security cameras, evidence lockers and other controls for evidence storage, which may create a greater risk of improper disposition in criminal cases or legal challenges related to the chain of custody of evidence stored there, the report issued Friday says.
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) concurred with the report’s recommendations to finalize an evidence-unit manual addressing all aspects of evidence collection and storage; take immediate steps to address capacity issues at the warehouse and vehicle-storage facility; and take immediate steps to ensure consistent and secure evidence storage at all precincts. But SPD’s agreement came with a huge caveat: The department’s ability to implement changes depends on budget and staffing.
“That’s our biggest hurdle and continues to be an issue with the City Council’s continued efforts to cut our budget,” said Sgt. Randy Huserik, an SPD spokesperson. “We’re not able to jump into the recommendations in the report without clearing the hurdles around staffing and funding.”
Complicating matters was the introduction in May 2019 of a new records-management system called Mark43. The new system requires each piece of evidence to be re-labeled with new bar codes and case numbers because Mark43 cannot run reports with case numbers from the old tracking system, according to the OIG report.
Created in 2017 to help ensure the fairness and integrity of policing in Seattle, the OIG independently audits management, policies and practices of both SPD and the Office of Police Accountability, which is responsible for investigating allegations of officer misconduct. OIG also oversees the department’s ongoing fidelity to implementing reforms stemming from the 2012 consent decree, according to the report.
SPD’s 26,000-square-foot evidence warehouse, near Airport Way South and South Walker Street, includes a massive freezer where DNA, blood and other biological evidence are stored before and after being sent to the Washington State Patrol (WSP) Crime Lab for analysis. A nearby building houses the department’s vehicle-storage facility, where vehicles seized during criminal investigations are searched, photographed, processed for fingerprints and stored until after criminal cases are resolved and a defendant’s appeals have been exhausted.
As of September, the warehouse — which has capacity for roughly 250,000 items — was 94% full and the vehicle-storage facility was at capacity with 69 vehicles, according to the OIG report.
The report notes the space problem has been an issue since at least 2013.
In September 2019, SPD notified the OIG that 107 DNA samples had been mistakenly destroyed and asked the OIG to review the chain of events that led to the erroneous destruction. During the audit, OIG determined the Crime Lab had destroyed 33 additional DNA samples.
It all started in 2014 with a legal dispute that took five years to resolve, though the issue actually dates to 2008, when the Legislature amended state law requiring DNA samples be collected from people convicted of specific misdemeanor crimes including harassment, patronizing a prostitute, stalking and fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation. The amendment didn’t affect the requirement that people convicted of any felony offense, encoded in state law since at least 2002, be required to provide DNA samples for inclusion in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national law enforcement database operated by the FBI.
CODIS allows local, state and federal forensic labs to electronically share and compare DNA profiles to link crimes to each other and to known offenders.
Also in 2008, the Seattle City Council mandated collection of DNA samples for people convicted of stalking, harassment and patronizing a prostitute. Those cases are prosecuted by the City Attorney’s Office.
“These crimes were already listed in state law as requiring DNA collection, but the passing of the ordinance meant that the collection was now also codified in municipal law,” says the OIG report.
DNA samples collected first at the King County Jail and then at the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) were analyzed by the Crime Lab and included in CODIS between 2008 and 2014. But in September 2014, the State Patrol determined its crime labs were only authorized to analyze post-conviction DNA samples collected under state law and said it would no longer analyze samples collected under the Seattle city ordinance.
“Neither WSP nor the CAO was able to conclusively explain why the WSP stopped analysis in 2014 rather than 2008, when the samples began to be collected under municipal code. The issue was finally resolved in 2019,” says the report.
In August 2015, the Crime Lab destroyed 33 DNA samples it determined were not authorized to be entered into CODIS because they had been collected from people convicted under the Seattle city ordinance. Of the 33 samples destroyed, the patrol was able to provide crime information to OIG for 31 of them: 23 were from people convicted of harassment, four for assault, three for patronizing a prostitute and one for cyberstalking.
The State Patrol, which operates five crime labs in the state, was not immediately able to answer questions related to the OIG report because some employees on leave for the holidays were unavailable, spokesperson Chris Loftis said in an email.
In July 2019, state law was again amended to allow for the analysis of DNA samples collected under local ordinance for equivalent crimes, and the next month, Seattle’s ordinance was also updated to include a necessary reference to state law, according to the report.
In those intervening years, between 2014 and 2019, the CAO collected 654 post-conviction DNA samples and in May 2016, began storing them in the SPD evidence warehouse in anticipation of an eventual legal remedy. The OIG report notes SPD does not typically store post-conviction evidence and didn’t have established processes for storing them.
The OIG audit found four of the destroyed DNA samples had accidentally been entered into CODIS and resulted in matches to evidence in other criminal cases; after analysis of post-conviction DNA samples resumed in 2019, three more samples resulted in CODIS hits, the report says.
Destruction of the combined 140 DNA samples by SPD and the Crime Lab “may have hindered the identification of criminal perpetrators,” says the report. However, OIG concluded there is no recourse to collect a second sample from people whose first sample was destroyed by the city or state.
“This is because the person convicted of the crime has fulfilled their obligation and cannot be made to resubmit DNA due to an error by another party,” the report says.
After SPD’s evidence warehouse failed fire inspections in 2016 and 2017, the department was given until February 2018 to remedy the fire-code violation that arose from storing pallets of evidence in warehouse aisles, blocking them.
That prompted SPD’s evidence unit to step up efforts to rid the warehouse of evidence that was no longer needed, and a “batch list” was created of items to be disposed of from criminal cases investigated between 2013 and 2016.
The OIG report says SPD policy requires detectives or officers to complete a property release form before evidence can be destroyed or released, but few of the forms were being filed, greatly contributing to overcrowding in the warehouse. Because the capacity issue had reached a critical point, the evidence unit proceeded with destruction of evidence without requiring detectives to sign off on the release forms, bypassing the main control mechanism to prevent accidental destruction of evidence still needed by the city. As a result, detectives were never notified that the 107 DNA samples were slated to be destroyed.
“Evidence Unit staff were directed to destroy everything on the list based on the statutory requirements associated with each case number, but this did not account for the unique nature of items stored post-conviction,” the report says.
The Evidence Unit also did not check an SPD database, that would have shown the DNA samples were being held for the CAO, according to the report. As a result, 16% of the 654 post-conviction samples were purged: 33 DNA samples were destroyed on Sept. 10, 2018, and 74 more were destroyed five days later.
Of the 107 samples, 76 were from people convicted of harassment, 18 for patronizing a prostitute, seven were convicted of assault and four for stalking, the report says, citing information provided by the CAO. Two of the samples were for other crimes and it was unclear why they had been collected.
“We’re thankful how seriously SPD took this issue, both in seeking the Inspector General’s review and in embracing the recommendations,” Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in an email. “We’re glad to consult with department staff in seeking long term solutions to the challenges raised in the report.”
At around the time the DNA samples were destroyed in 2018, SPD’s Audit Policy and Research Section (APRS) determined evidence from an unknown number of homicides from “reasonably recent” dates had also been purged, according to the OIG report.
No other details about the homicide evidence are included, though the report notes state law has no statute of limitations for prosecuting murder, rape, vehicular homicide and certain other crimes.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has since reached out to SPD to see if the department can provide a list of homicide cases that may be affected by the purge, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.