- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More than four decades ago, tens of millions of dollars in heroin slowly began disappearing from the evidence room of the New York City Police Department, swapped for baking powder by corrupt officers in one of the biggest misconduct episodes in city history.

The humiliating thefts led to major changes: initially, photographs and fingerprints for all officers taking out drug evidence, and eventually to surveillance cameras to document everyone’s moves, according to one former longtime detective.

Those decades old reforms still haven’t carried over to other departments, including the local FBI, which was hit this year by a theft scandal of its own that threatens a number of criminal prosecutions in the District of Columbia.

Experts said it’s considered a best practice to have cameras in evidence rooms, though there’s no clear federal guidance on it. Records show some FBI field offices have had cameras as far back as 1999.

But federal prosecutors admitted last week there were no cameras in the FBI’s Washington Field Office, where Agent Matthew Lowry is under criminal investigation over accusations that he took heroin and guns seized as evidence in drug cases.

Agent Lowry hasn’t been charged, but federal prosecutors already have moved to dismiss charges against more than two dozen defendants in cases he investigated.

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Joseph Pollini, a retired New York City police detective and lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said every inch of New York’s property control room is monitored by surveillance cameras. He said the internal thefts in the early 1970s led to major reforms.

But he said some federal agencies may be more lax about their policies because officials believe federal agents aren’t as corruptible as local police officers.

“They all figure all of their people are above reproach, they’re federal agents and they’ve never really had any serious breaches in the security” he said. “And it’s not until you have that breach of security that you have to take some really aggressive steps to rectify it because if it happens then it sets up a lot of problems.”

Agent Lowry isn’t the first FBI employee to come under investigation for improper handling of evidence. Three years ago, a former FBI evidence control technician in Indiana, Melissa Sims, was sentenced to 15 months in prison after she was charged with embezzling more than $30,000 in cash from an evidence room.

The Justice Department itself has prosecuted a host of cases involving corrupt local law enforcement officials caught stealing evidence in recent years.

In 1999, the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about FBI’s controls over seized drugs and firearms in a report noting that internal inspections found “weaknesses in physical access controls” and missing chain of custody documents.

At the time, the FBI insisted that evidence control rooms reviewed by the GAO were monitored by at least one surveillance camera. The Washington Field Office was not among the sites reviewed by the GAO, and it’s unclear why it would lack cameras when other field offices had them 15 years ago.

The Washington Field Office referred questions about its evidence room procedures to the FBI’s national press office, which did not provide a response.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and expert on police practices, said even with cameras, there’s no guarantee that surveillance would have caught Agent Lowry if it turns out he’s found to have pilfered drugs or guns.

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