By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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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."
The only money that should be on hand, he adds, is money that could be used as evidence. "But it's only a small percentage of all the monies we get. So the other monies should not stay in the police station longer than a day."
He recently assigned his new 37-year-old assistant chief, John Gallagher, the task of making the MPD Property Unit more shipshape. After a stint as an NYPD cop starting in 1989, the Queens native was an anti-corruption prosecutor for Timoney when the latter was the second-ranking NYPD chief in the mid-Nineties. When Timoney took over as Philadelphia's police commissioner in 1998, Gallagher served as his legal counsel. He came to Miami in February from the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico. "When the chief told me that property was going to be under my purview, I didn't need an audit report or anything like that," Gallagher offers. "That was the first place I visited because I knew from experience they're ticking time bombs in every police department that I've ever visited."
Gallagher estimates that two million dollars still in the vault could earn the city an extra $100,000 per year if deposited in a bank account. He assigned Captain Vera, a Property Unit captain and a CPA, to implement a computerized system capable of carrying out daily deposits.
Gallagher says that the case of the missing envelopes is two-thirds solved. A PU inquiry found court records indicating money from two of them was returned to its owners. The fate of the third envelope, which supposedly contained $1000, is still unknown. Ditto for the two guns and two accessories.
"As you can see, we're still heavily reliant on paper systems," Gallagher observes during a recent tour of the unit, pointing to the wall formed by color-coded folders stuffed tightly into an open-faced shelving system. "Right now it's the way it would have been done 50 years ago in policing. It's a paper-based system. That becomes problematic because if the paper is missing you don't know if the property is missing or it was rightfully returned." Lt. Raul Cairo, who oversees the Property Unit, nods. "This system can only take so much," he confirms. "Sometimes we'll write it on paper and it doesn't get into the system."
In an adjacent room on the other side of two large bulletproof windows and a security door, two officers are doing paperwork. Behind them are three rooms about twelve feet deep and five feet wide. One holds confiscated money, one narcotics, and one guns. As Cairo begins to explain which room is which, he notices the sign on the narcotics door says "firearms" and the sign on the firearms door says "narcotics." One of the clerks gets up and begins to change the signs. "We've done much to fix the place," Gallagher assures, "but there's still much to do."