By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Long before he came to clean up a few small messes in Miami, this city's new police chief John Timoney was a young cop in New York City in the early Seventies, when millions of dollars of heroin disappeared from one of NYPD's warehouses. The case went on to inspire the movie The French Connection. So the 58-year-old Irish-American knows that police property units -- where cops dump off cash, drugs, guns, and other confiscated items to their colleagues on the other side of the counter to store -- can be trouble. He recalls some advice he got when he first started at NYPD. "In 1967 when I was a young trainee and I was assigned to my first precinct ... some old Irish lieutenant said to me, 'Kid, be careful with the property. This job, property, will kill ya.' In other words it blows up all the time. And I'm sure 30 years prior, in 1937, his boss told him the same thing."
This past February city auditors announced that at least $24,840 was missing from the Miami Police Department's Property Unit, a series of small and large storage rooms located in the gloomy basement of MPD's downtown headquarters at 400 NW Second Ave. Another $3058 had disappeared in the process of moving from the unit to a city bank account. That's peanuts considering the Property Unit vault contains about two million dollars, most of which should be in a bank. Then again it is possible that more money could have walked, because the audit covered only a one-year period from October 1, 2001 to September 30, 2002.
Aside from the fact that it is illegal for cops to steal, the integrity of property units is important because a lot of the material they store is evidence that must be carefully preserved in case it needs to be used in court. Or it belongs to somebody who hasn't come in to pick it up yet.
The Property Unit is just one of the corners of the MPD that got a little too messy in recent years under Timoney's predecessors, Raul Martinez and Donald Warshaw. The laxity cost the department its professional law enforcement accreditation in October 2001. Investigators from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) found many violations of standard operating procedures, including inadequate analyses of incidents involving vehicle pursuit of suspects and the use of deadly force.
The CALEA report also foreshadowed the blowup at the Property Unit, noting that the officer responsible for auditing the PU's records was a supervisor in the unit, rather than someone from the outside. Kind of a conflict of interest situation, according to CALEA guidelines.
Part of the Property Unit mystery was solved even before auditors could write up their report, and before Timoney's arrival this past January. One day in November Gilda Elaine Scott, the 49-year-old supervisor of the Confiscated Detail Section, told her commander, Capt. Andrew Vera, that she had helped herself to some of the money. Scott, an employee of the Property Unit since 1980, retired the day after her confession. When the auditors learned of the alleged pilfering, they checked out all 2268 of the envelopes containing money that supposedly went to the bank during the audit period. Missing: $3058.13. An internal-affairs investigation is still open.
As for the missing 24 grand, auditors stumbled on that by first selecting a sample of 53 envelopes of money (totaling $737,190) from the vault. Three of the 53 were missing.
The auditors also sat down with the Property Unit records documenting MPD's current inventory of 8184 confiscated guns and accessories. The firearms include BB guns, pistols, rifles, and at least one street-sweeper machine gun. Several hundred are packed into metal racks in a room the size of a walk-in closet. The rest are piled on dozens of racks in an adjacent storage area. The inspectors picked a sample of 60 from the unit's paper records and set out to find them. Property Unit personnel could not locate two guns and two sets of bullets. That's just under seven percent of the sample. But if that percentage held for the whole inventory, about 550 guns and accessories would be missing.
Timoney says that if a Property Unit audit weren't already in the works, he would have ordered his own just on principle. "I mean you'd have to be brain-dead not to," he grimaces. But he could also smell trouble just by eyeballing the unit when he arrived. "All you had to do is look at the state, the condition of it. It was clearly evident," he says. He then adroitly makes clear MPD isn't the only department that's ever needed serious housekeeping. "Not unlike other police departments I've worked in, Philadelphia and New York."
But those two departments stopped piling up cash long ago, Timoney concedes. In NYC and Philly confiscated money goes to the bank the same day. "In New York it was probably the mid-Eighties when we finally started [saying], 'Wait a minute, hold on, time out.' Some captain had this brilliant idea that, you know, we could be making money on this money just on the interest. And we would reduce the corruption and fraud possibilities that doesn't need to be here and deposit it in an interest-bearing account. And so in New York, because the money is hugein New York, they make a few million a year. The department does."