After noticing some concerning habits in the California Police Department's evidence handling process and the integrity of its leadership, a group of officers say they tried to escalate their concerns about the department's operations to their leaders in the agency and the city of California.
The group claims it walked CPD Chief Daniel Hurt through the department, showing him each instance of misconduct.
Then two of them — Jared Allen and Nick Stobbart — were fired Jan. 5, following a 5-1 vote by the City of California Board of Aldermen to terminate their employment.
A third officer, Christopher Tew, resigned that evening.
An official statement from the city of California followed the next day, stating two probationary employees had been terminated.
The fired CPD officers allege they were not given a reason their employment was terminated. Chief Hurt, California Mayor Norris Gerhart and City Attorney Ann Perry have declined within the past week to share more detail as to why the employees were fired.
In a special session Monday, the California Board of Aldermen moved to approve ordinances bringing in a consultant and special counsel to assist with a comprehensive review and inquiry into the operations of the California Police Department.
In the wake of the firings, the CPD is down to only four officers, including Hurt and Capt. Ralph Parris.
Tew said for around two months, he had noticed issues in the department — also noted by the fired staff — that he tried to escalate. The fired officers corroborated Tew's remarks but would not speak further on the advice of their attorneys.
Tew alleged some of the department's remaining staff are the ones responsible — be it through perpetuating a department culture that prioritizes "covering for each other" over proper procedure or through a perceived lack of departmental leadership — for the operational issues he and others attempted to bring to light and are now set to be investigated.
Tew alleged evidence at the department was vastly mishandled. He said members of the public essentially had full access to everything from cellphones to drug paraphernalia — "just about anything they'd want," he said. Items seized in arrests sat unsecured in offices, desk drawers and other easily-accessible spaces throughout the department.
Because evidence was improperly secured and labeled, Tew said, it opened the door for it to be unusable in filing any future charges against offenders. He said this means most pieces of evidence seized and mishandled by the CPD's current evidence custodian — the individual classified as the "top rung" in the chain of custody, responsible for keeping track of and storing all evidence that runs through the department — are no longer usable in court.
That means cases can potentially be thrown out, paving the way for offenders to be released uncharged.
"It's not really something that sits right, and it's been brought up multiple times," Tew said.
Tew said the CPD's evidence custodian has recently seized cellphones, wallets and car keys from members of the public and not given them back, nor filed reports for the CPD's possession of their personal property. He said the response from the officer each time he brought it up was that they just forgot to give it back. Tew said this shouldn't happen unless a person's property is explicit evidence of a crime.
Tew alleged these issues were ignored and even hidden from city officials who walked through the department office space with the intent of seeing what was going on.
"I never brought anything up with the intention of getting anyone fired or in trouble," he said. "The main complaint was why are we allowing just base patrolmen to do whatever they feel like doing?"
Gary Hill, chief at the Lincoln University Police Department and an appointee to the Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, said evidence handling typically is more regimented: Evidence collected by an officer is placed into an evidence bag or box, marked and dated; turned over to the department's evidence officer once returned to the office; then promptly logged and placed by the evidence officer into a locker or another secure container designated by the department.
Hill, as a member of the POST Commission, helps to assist with establishing minimum standards for peace officer basic training and continued education. The commission also advises the director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety on officer standards and training. Its mission, per the Missouri DPS website, is to "ensure the citizens of Missouri are provided with the best trained, most professional law enforcement officers."
Generally, Hill said, a chain of custody procedure should be pretty strict, and any police department should have a good evidence policy, even if it is tailored differently to an agency's size and staffing.
"The biggest concern is that it makes sure that the evidence has not been tampered with, which is why you follow the chain of custody," Hill said. "That way, you know whose hands its been in, who's touched it, things like that."
If evidence is classified as tampered with via a broken chain of custody process, Hill said, the officer has to inform the individual prosecuting the case, and the result could be a thrown-out case. It can be harder for a prosecuting attorney to make use of such evidence, depending on the type, Hill said. Drugs can be diluted or added to, for example, and blood samples can be lost or go bad if not refrigerated.
Tew also alleged other areas of misconduct: lying in or failing to file reports about arrests, an officer in one instance making an arrest for the offender's "own good" and a general lack of accountability.
A fourth former CPD officer offered a statement regarding the extended history of misconduct in the department beyond more recently, stating the CPD has "continuously faced troubling internal issues and allegations of misconduct that have resulted in an overwhelming turnover rate of both chiefs of police and officers alike."
Moniteau County Sheriff Tony Wheatley said earlier this month that the county department will be ready to assist the CPD as needed, as the police department's current staff numbers are now so low. Though he met with some of the CPD's officers to hear their concerns prior to the first week of January, Wheatley said, he had let them know it was an internal issue he could not interfere with.
Hurt and Gerhart declined to comment further on the matter when contacted earlier this week.
A member of the public does not have to be a law enforcement officer to report misconduct to the POST Commission. The POST Commission can be reached at 573-751-3409 or by emailing [email protected]
This article was edited at 9:55 a.m. Jan. 18, 2021, to correct the spelling of Nick Stobbart's name.