The New Orleans Police Department has made strides in its upkeep of crime-scene evidence, revising policies to reflect national standards and making other long-needed changes, according to a new audit. But even as the NOPD has worked to transform its oft-maligned storage operation into a proper evidence room, a “high risk of theft or misplacement” remains if officials don’t conduct regular inventories and purge dated exhibits.

Those were among the findings of an audit released early Wednesday by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, whose office has worked closely with the Police Department to clean up a Central Evidence and Property section still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Quatrevaux’s team made a series of recommendations that city officials accepted.

The evidence section had been in the basement of NOPD headquarters before succumbing to Katrina’s floodwaters. Security suffered serious setbacks when evidence had to be moved to a FEMA trailer, the audit said, and missing cash generated internal, state and federal investigations.

Managerial problems resulted in “significant consequences for the city’s criminal justice system, including instances where evidence was unavailable for trials,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said in a response to Quatrevaux’s findings. Evidence storage relocated again in early 2008 to a leased facility, where it has remained as the city awaits the construction of a new building that Harrison said will be “state of the art.”

Quatrevaux’s audit noted “significant improvements in recent years” to policies and procedures, including the weekly depositing of seized cash into an interest-bearing account. The state legislative auditor had reported in 2009 that cash was being stored at the evidence section indefinitely, exposing it to possible theft or misplacement.

“Additionally, a climate-controlled DNA section was added to the (Central Evidence and Property) facility and all DNA exhibits were bar-coded and cataloged in this location,” the audit said.

But auditors said they also found “no records of evidence disposals since Hurricane Katrina, despite the fact that thousands of pieces of evidence were eligible for disposal.”

The NOPD, the audit said, has failed to purge evidence in criminal cases even after “all statutes of limitations had expired.” That accumulation of unusable evidence becomes unwieldy in a facility that takes in about 40,000 exhibits a year. “If evidence is not purged,” the audit said, “the city will incur costs to move unneeded evidence to the new CE&P facility.”

Police brass, in their response to the audit, said they’ve made appreciable headway on the evidence front in recent months. In June, they said, police met with the city attorney, the District Attorney’s Office and Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White and agreed upon a “new process for reviewing and disposing of evidence exhibits that adheres to state law while allowing for timely disposal.”

“Since this meeting, numerous court orders to dispose of evidence have been executed and CE&P is addressing this backlog,” the NOPD said. “We are confident that this new process will allow us to eliminate this backlog in an orderly but expeditious manner.”

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