Atwater’s interim chief of police on Friday announced the closure of the department’s evidence storage room pending an audit led by the California Department of Justice.
The announcement comes on the heels of the revelation that evidence collected in criminal investigations, possibly including guns, cash and drugs, may have disappeared from the Atwater Police Department’s evidence storage room.
Interim Police Chief Drew Bessinger said the storage room has been locked and re-keyed.
“And I have the only key,” Bessinger told the Sun-Star on Friday. “For all intents and purposes, right now, the city is out of the business of evidence storage.”
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Going forward, all evidence collected by Atwater police officers will be stored with the Merced County Sheriff’s Office until the audit is completed. At the conclusion of the audit, the city will then “develop and implement ‘best practices’ in evidence so that going forward there will be no further issues,” city officials said in a statement.
“All the evidence currently stored in (Atwater’s storage) will remain there because it’s part of the audit,” Bessinger said.
If items of evidence are needed for a court hearing, that evidence will be collected under Bessinger’s direct supervision and documented, the interim chief said.
Authorities have been careful to note that it remains too early to know whether bad book-keeping practices caused authorities to lose track of evidence or whether the missing items were lost or stolen.
Discrepancies involving the city’s evidence storage room emerged earlier this year during an audit ordered by then-Interim City Manager Art de Werk.
De Werk, whose tenure as the city’s top staffer ended after just three months, ordered a review in January of all city departments. Merced County sheriff’s investigators examined city’s police force and discovered “security issues” tied to the storage room, including the possibility of missing guns, cash and drugs, the Sun-Star has confirmed.
In a letter last month to area defense attorneys, District Attorney Larry Morse II said it was possible some evidence was missing. Morse on Thursday said it was possible that some of that missing evidence could be exculpatory.