By Paul Kiefer
More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.
Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.
By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.
But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.
After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.
The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.
SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.
According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.
But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.
The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.
Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.
The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.
During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.
The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—and an unspecified number of bicycles to the adjacent vehicle storage garage. That building, which was filled to capacity as of September, is far less secure than the evidence warehouse: according to SPD auditors cited in the report, the garage not only lacks surveillance cameras, but also features “unsecured doors.” SPD’s audit team also found that the pallets of evidence left in the garage weren’t sealed with shrink wrap to protect the evidence. However, a secondary review by the SPD auditing team and the homicide unit found that all of the evidence left unsecured in the garage was accounted for.
In response to their findings, the OIG recommended that SPD finalize a manual for the evidence unit in coordination with the city attorney’s office and the King County Prosecutor’s Office; that the department address the lack of “equilibrium” in its evidence storage facilities and resolve its longstanding overcrowding problems; and that the department set standards for evidence storage at each precinct.
Miller also told PubliCola that SPD’s manual should be accompanied by more robust officer training, “starting from evidence collection in the field and ending with the proper disposition of items once they are no longer needed as evidence.” That, he says, might help lift some of the pressure on the evidence unit.
SPD’s only objections to the recommendations were staffing- and budget-related. In their responses to the OIG, SPD management representatives wrote that “staffing reductions, a moratorium on overtime expenditures, the necessary redeployment of some detectives to patrol and the resulting increased workload of other detectives” prevents the department from addressing the overcrowding at the storage facilities.
The evidence unit did not lose staff when Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz transferred 100 officers to patrol in October; the department’s argument is that increasingly overworked detectives will have even less time to sort through their old case files to find evidence the department no longer needs. Officer Valerie Carson, a spokesperson for the department, told PubliCola in December that SPD will begin reviewing the impacts of those staffing transfers on detectives’ workloads this year, though it’s unclear whether Diaz would reverse the transfers if that review shows they placed too large a burden on the remaining detectives.
In the meantime, SPD can’t correct the mistake: The OIG report cites the city attorney’s office as saying that there is “no legal recourse to collect second samples” from the people who provided the original 107 DNA samples because they have already “fulfilled their obligation” to provide a DNA sample after their conviction, and there is no state or local law requiring them to provide a new sample if the state loses their initial sample.
Casey McNerthey, a spokesperson for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said his office has asked SPD for a list of homicide cases that might be affected by the evidence destruction. McNerthey added that the King County Prosecutor’s Office expects SPD to contact them before disposing of any more evidence; in the coming months, he says his office will work with SPD to create a clearer guide to evidence storage and disposal.