Audit finds changes needed in Salisbury Police Evidence Room

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Some 18 months after it was revealed that an employee in the Salisbury Police Department's Evidence Room had improperly removed cash, an auditor’s report has recommended broad changes in the way evidence is collected, handled and stored.

Meanwhile, in an effort to put the scandal in the rear-view mirror, city officials said this week they will implement sweeping measures designed to restore public confidence, improve community relations, and recruit and retain police officers.

The alleged thefts began as far back as 1982 and continued for decades. Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan said Tuesday that about $261,000 in cash and currency had been taken in all. The money, confiscated during criminal investigations, either should have been returned to defendants or placed in a police seizures account for department purchases.

The Police Department discovered the problem a year ago in the course of an internal audit of its property storage facility, which found evidence of a series of potentially egregious breaches of internal policy by a civilian employee.

The city ordered the audit for future recertification reviews by an accrediting agency, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. This internal audit was non-compulsory, and was initiated by the department to ensure adherence to best practices for property handling and storage.

Following the discovery of possible thefts, command staff determined that there was cause to believe that the civilian employee may have committed one or more thefts while working in the property storage facility.

The employee was later identified in court records as Mordeen Marie Cottman of Westbrooke Drive in Salisbury.

Cottman attempted to enter a plea agreement on theft charges late last year, but a judge rejected the agreement.

County prosecutors were negotiating a new plea agreement when Cottman -- just 53 -- died May 10 of this year.

According to court records, Cottman had a long history of bill payment problems. Salisbury Mayor Jake Day conceded Tuesday that part of the city’s new checks-and-balances would be reviewing financial actions filed against employees in significant city roles.

The mayor said prospects for recouping the stolen money from Cottman’s estate are unlikely.

The audit firm hired by the city -- SB & Co. of Owings Mills, Md. -- presented nine recommendations for processing, handling and storing evidence.

Duncan said she and her staff would embrace and implement the audit firm’s proposals.

The fallout from the Evidence Room revelation prompted city officials to speed up other plans for reform, mostly in an effort to reassure the public and salvage department morale.

The city’s objectives going forward:

  • To disclose all information that can legally be disclosed about all ongoing and completed investigations of police personnel.
  • To affirm the commitment to the highest ethical standards.
  • To reassure the public that their law enforcement officers can be trusted at all times – and when they fail, there will be accountability.
  • To affirm for all Police Department employees that they can have confidence their colleagues will uphold the highest ethical standards – and that those who don’t will not remain employed.

In recent months, city officials have also engaged in criminal justice reform, renewed their focus on youth engagement and developed an online reporting form in which less serious or non-urgent events can be reported without burdening either an overworked dispatcher or officer on patrol.

The department will also create a Special Investigations Unit to address the escalating use of guns in city crimes. 

Salisbury will also do more to recruit and retain officers by increasing pay and offering tax incentives:

Police officers and firefighters will receive a 100 percent city property tax credit if they have a home in the city of Salisbury.

Current officers will receive a 4 percent pay increase across each of the pay grades.

Officers from other agencies who transfer into the Salisbury department will receive a $25,000 signing bonus.

Day praised Duncan, her command staff and city, county and state officials who aided the auditors in their investigation.

“I am proud of the work of the Salisbury Police Department in resolving this difficult issue,” he said.

“I am proud of Chief Duncan and the senior leadership team and the work they put in over the last 18 months,” the mayor said. “They have done a grueling and detailed review of -- not only tens of thousands of items -- but all of our policies and procedures related to those items.”