NEWPORT, Minn. (KMSP) - The town of Newport, Minn. is home to 3,400 people. The tiny town’s police department now faces a massive problem. Cash, guns and drugs are missing from its evidence room and the mishandling thereof could compromise future criminal cases.
The Newport Police Department was down to only 5 officers when the Washington County sheriff arrived to assist with investigations in September. That's when the department began to uncover violations of Newport police’s evidence and property management.
A week and a half ago, Sheriff Bill Hutton sent a memo about the items missing from the police evidence room.
“It was disturbing, it really was,” Newport City Administrator Deb Hill said of the lack of security.
She and other city staff are surprised at just how bad things had really gotten with the short-staffed police department over the past few years.
Property cannot be tracked in more than 1,100 cases according to Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton. The problem dates back to 2009 and possibly even earlier. Worse, some storage practices have possibly jeopardized sexual assault cases.
When Hill learned of the mishandlings she and Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty were stunned.
“It was a surprise to me that it was that bad,” Geraghty said.
“It was very disturbing to me as a female, it a, it's a tough one,” Hill said.
Washington County Sheriff’s staff spent 100 hours sorting through the evidence room and records retention room. Among the most disturbing things they learned was that rape kits were not only mishandled, they were completely ignored for 4 ½ months.
They also discovered plenty of seized items are untraceable.
14 guns once checked into police storage are unaccounted for. And a 15th gun was missing until sheriff's deputies found it inside city hall -- in an area accessible to the public. Additionally, the sheriff found a dismantled meth lab was inside the Department of Public Works.
There is also money, which was either turned in to police or collected in investigations, currently missing. Money that is also untraceable.
“That one's hard. Because usually I guess from what I understand the money is collected and given to the front office. Well since I've been here, that's never happened. We would never know if they've collected money,” Hill recalls.
Meanwhile, Newport city councilman Dan Lund looks to the next council meeting, “I think there's some sentiment around the council to get an independent investigation related to figuring out what's going on with the inventory of the evidence room.”
None of the patrol officers are responsible for managing property storage.
For now the problems are not pinned on wrongdoing. Also, it's still unclear where exactly evidence was placed. Newport’s evidence room woes boil down to their failure to log whether evidence was disposed or destroyed once it left the storage areas or why exactly it was removed in the first place.
In light of the evidence room problem Newport City Council may contract the Washington County Sheriff’s Department to assist its department for the next two years.
The council may decide to seek an independent investigation into its police evidence room as early as November 19.