By Amaris Castillo
DRACUT -- The Police Department's failure to follow numerous evidence policy requirements, leading to the mishandling of property and evidence, illuminates "years of neglect" and is part of systemic issues within the agency, according to a long-awaited independent consultant's report.
A copy of the report, which was completed in September 2016, was obtained by The Sun of Lowell last week after a lengthy public-records fight with the town and its legal counsel. The town initially denied giving the report to the newspaper, prompting The Sun to appeal to the Secretary of State's Office and Keeper of Records for full disclosure, based on the public's right to know about a taxpayer-funded document. The state agreed and required the town to turn over the report to the newspaper.
Significant findings of the consultant's report include:
n Evidence dating back years were kept in temporary evidence lockers.
n Evidence packaging was generally very poor, with inadequate labeling, inadequate descriptions and improper bundling of items together.
n A large number of disposed drug cases were packaged and ready for destruction. However, no arrangements were made at that point with the state police for destruction.
n The drug-storage room contained no alarm system.
n Firearms were improperly labeled. Some firearms contained evidence tags; many contained no information whatsoever.
n Evidence was inappropriately kept in cabinets in the evidence processing area.
The above findings are included in a partially redacted, 106-page report from the Plymouth-based Pomeroy Resources Inc., which conducted an on-site evidence and property review of the Police Department on Sept. 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12 last year.
Latest bad news
This is the latest in a series of negative headlines for the department, which has been mired in turmoil for years.
In November 2015, Municipal Resources Inc., a New Hampshire consultancy that conducted an audit of the department at the town's request, found a "toxic mix of fear and intimidation" reigning inside the agency, leading to "abysmal" morale.
That audit called the Police Department an agency "in deep turmoil and struggling to fulfill its mission to deliver efficient and effective public safety services to its residents. ... It is beset by significant internal dysfunction with a majority of the department having indicated the leadership team of the chief and deputy chief have failed to create an atmosphere and workplace that encourages inclusion, empowerment, collaboration or one that provides a clear vision for competency and success."
Kevin Richardson, who has since retired, was the chief at the time while David Chartrand was deputy, and remains so today.
Further, a longtime police officer, in a lawsuit filed last year, accuses Sgt. Gregg Byam, who was in charge of the evidence room until the September audit, of purchasing and consuming illegal narcotics and participating in sex-and-drug parties at an informant's house.
A consultant with Pomeroy Resources said a spreadsheet provided by the agency contained only a fraction of the actual numbers of pieces of property and evidence. The laundry list of items located during the inventory -- but missing from the spreadsheet -- included drugs, knives, cash, forensic evidence and tested drugs marked for destruction. The list, item per item, takes up nearly 40 pages of the report.
Town Manager Jim Duggan said the town reacted swiftly and seriously to the report.
"It was disturbing, but we took immediate internal controls to correct some of the issues immediately in regards to following proper policies and procedures of receiving evidence, storing evidence and categorizing evidence, and making sure we follow, according to the necessary standards, the checks and balances that are in place," Duggan told The Sun. "Back in September, when this came to light, we immediately made some internal personnel changes."
Duggan said the department's new evidence officer is Sgt. Jason George. According to former interim Chief Neil Ouellette, whose finished last week, George has done an "outstanding job" and has day-to-day contact with judges and court personnel so the agency can ensure a timely turnaround of evidence and destruction.
"No one was paying attention," Ouellette said when pressed on what he feels went wrong. "They had antiquated policies, and even the antiquated policies had some guidelines that were pertinent in them, but for some reason, the chain of command or the high levels of the organization weren't paying attention. It's happened all over the commonwealth. It's something that the police chief and administrators have to stay on top of."
'One of the challenges'
A Middlesex District Attorney's Office review of all pending case evidence from the Dracut Police Department is ongoing, according to a spokeswoman.
Newly hired Police Chief Peter Bartlett said, "This is one of the challenges that Dracut police is facing as we move into the future, obviously with the changes that have been made recently.
"Evidence is any agency's Achilles' heel, and we have to constantly make sure, and properly provide checks and balances contained within the policy ... that we're always doing what's right for the chain of custody on the evidence we've taken."
According to the audit, temporary evidence lockers should never be used for long-term storage, as evidenced by the note on one locker indicating that one detective maintained the key.
"It was very troubling to find evidence on property dating back several years within the temporary evidence lockers," the report states.
The consultant also found that the agency did not initially use a functional evidence and property component of the Police Server software package, which is the records-management system used by Dracut police.
"There are conflicting reports about why the property and evidence module was never initially utilized since Police Server was installed in Dracut in 1998," the report states. "There is information that, at some point, Police Server software upgrades could no longer be installed due to the age and lack of capability of the existing computer server in the Dracut Police Department."
The consultant recommended that the agency immediately acquire a computer server capable of handling the Police Server software and upgrade to the current version.
Before he left, Ouellette said a brand-new server was purchased by the town, and added that the property and evidence module has been used since officials were debriefed in September.
According to the report, findings in the evidence processing area include an open bag containing four pills, an evidence inventory sheet for marijuana with no marijuana present, and an unlabeled black box containing different-colored pills.
"It was very disconcerting to find evidence or property dating back to 2007 in unlocked cabinets within this room," the consultant reports.
The consultant recommended that no property or evidence should be stored within the cabinets in that room, and that the room should be equipped with a small digital scale.
"I find the Evidence and Property System Review and Inventory report disturbing because it does not appear that we have learned anything from the turmoil caused by the 2003 missing marijuana case," Selectman Tony Archinski, who is also a former Dracut police officer, stated in a written statement to The Sun, in reference to $80,000 worth of marijuana stolen from one of its locked evidence trailers 14 years ago. "I have always felt that until the town starts holding people accountable, nothing will change, and we run the risk of losing criminal cases."
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.