BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Offices of the New York State Inspector General released the findings of its investigation of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) Transit police Wednesday.
According to the results of the investigation, NFTA Transit police "lost seized money from arrestees on more than one occasion due to careless procedures and missing internal controls involving seized and recovered funds." At least $3,141 was lost and is still missing.
The Offices of the New York State Inspector General said in May 2018 police seized $2,036 from a suspect during an arrest. After the criminal case was resolved in October 2018 the suspect went to get his money back but the NFTA was unable to locate money. The NFTA eventually paid the suspect $2,036 from the authority’s general funds.
It was during this investigation that the Inspector General learned of other cases of money seized during arrests that was lost or went missing.
- NFTA Transit Police officers arrested two individuals after a traffic stop uncovered the possession of narcotics and seized $1,105 from one individual and $1,345 from the other. At the time of the arrests, federal agencies were investigating one of the individuals suspected of running a sex trafficking operation in Buffalo. Federal prosecutors joined NFTA’s case against the individual and sought to obtain all evidence seized during the arrests. When federal agents met with a detective who managed NFTA’s evidence room, the Transit Police chief advised the detective that he could not locate the seized funds in the Transit Police’s safe. A review of this safe at the time revealed loose money and cash-filled evidence bags – both marked and unmarked. Even though the amount in one of the bags was $81.25 more than the amount seized, the chief directed the detective to give the federal agents the money and indicate that it was the suspect’s money – with additional “pocket change.”
- NFTA Transit Police officers arrested an individual who had allegedly stolen a vehicle and was found with a loaded handgun for which he did not have a permit. NFTA Transit Police seized $1,186, which was placed in an evidence bag. When the case was concluded and the Transit Police sought to return the seized funds, they were missing.
- A Transit Police detective eventually surmised that as the amount of missing money seized from the second individual – $1,186 – was very close to that provided to the federal agents in the first prosecution – $1,186.25 – NFTA improperly gave the money seized from the second individual to federal agents. Without notifying NFTA’s executive director, the chief advised federal agents of the mix-up and sought a return of the money.
The Offices of the New York State Inspector General said police lacked a specific written policy on the handling and safeguarding of seized money and followed a similar process as described below:
- The arresting officer counted seized money in the booking room, monitored by video.
- Money was then secured in an evidence bag with an evidence log form attached.
- At the officer’s discretion, an identification sticker with a barcode would be attached.
- The officer recorded evidence facts in Erie County Central Police Services’ case management database.
- The evidence bag was then transferred to the arresting officer’s direct supervisor, who was responsible for turning it over to the captain in charge of evidence.
- The captain was then responsible for transferring the evidence bag to the chief, who, sometime later, placed it in the currency safe, typically notifying the captain of the transaction.
- The captain was then responsible for updating the case file in the database to note that the evidence had been placed in the safe.
The following shortcomings were listed in a release:
- The denominations and quantities of seized money was often not listed.
- When the captain was not present to receive an evidence bag, supervisors merely placed the bag on his desk.
- The captain’s office, while secured by a lock, could still be accessed by approximately 20 individuals with keys to the office.
- The practice – never memorialized in writing – was also poorly enforced.
- Many police officers testified that arresting officers were able to take shortcuts with little fear of repercussion.
- The chief did not follow any common practice or procedure for identifying and securing money in the currency safe, beyond locking the safe door.
- He acknowledged that he would place unlabeled evidence bags containing money into the currency safe with the intention of later determining the case with which they were associated.
- He stated to the Inspector General’s Office: “We had a lot of money in the safe, a mixture of cases and evidence and found property … The safe was a mess.”
The Offices of the New York State Inspector General said the NFTA has taken some steps to fix the shortcomings but additional actions are needed to get them into compliance with state and national policing standards.
The Inspector General recommends the following:
- NFTA should utilize its barcode labeling system for all evidence.
- The denominations of all money seized should be recorded in the property report and on the evidence bag.
- A description of all items in the currency safe should be logged in an electronic evidence database.
- NFTA should implement and train its police officers on all new promulgated policies and procedures, which should be strictly adhered to and enforced going forward.
We rely on law enforcement to protect evidence as an essential part of due process. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Transit Police’s troubling lack of protocols for handling seized and recovered cash put the notion of justice at risk. This law enforcement body must do better and ensure its evidence-handling processes is in line with established state and federal standards.
An NFTA spokesperson released the following statement:
We thank and appreciate the office of the New York Inspector General for accepting our referral, conducting the investigation and for recommending remediation consistent with measures already undertaken by the NFTA. It’s important to point out, the report of the IG reveals no evidence concerning corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse, but indicated that our written policies were not consistently followed. Any such mishandling of currency, no matter how infrequent or insignificant, is unacceptable. When first brought to our attention, we recognized the shortcomings and revised our internal controls and began the process necessary for application for accreditation by the New York Law Enforcement Agency Accreditation Council to insure that such errors never occur again.