Virginia hamlet disbands police, gets locked out of own evidence locker

When a police department is dissolved, pending criminal cases remain active.

Amid scattered nationwide calls to defund or dissolve individual police forces, a rural Virginia hamlet finds itself a possible harbinger of what could happen if larger jurisdictions decide to zero out their own law enforcement agencies.

With its barely 1,000 people, the 2.6-square-mile town of Pound, Va. voted this month to disband its police department — and was left with no one in charge of an evidence locker containing documentation on pending criminal cases.

"You have to have a chain of custody or else the evidence is no good, and criminals can walk free," Pound's interim town manager, Drew Mullins, told Just the News. "This is completely uncharted territory for us, and nationwide as well." 

The situation in Pound evolved gradually, as the community wrestled for months with budget issues. After two police officers took jobs elsewhere this year, Mullins said, the cash-strapped southwest Virginia town placed the remaining two officers — one part-time detective and the chief — on furlough. On May 18, the town terminated the entire department.

Town officials immediately realized that the police evidence locker had been figuratively cast adrift.

"It left no one in the chain of custody for the evidence locker," Mullins said. And, with no law enforcement officers remaining on duty, police were locked out of the evidence room.

The area's Commonwealth's Attorney, Chuck Slemp, asked a judge to step in to preserve the chain of custody. The judge noted, though, that the terminated police chief could not give the records and evidence to his successor as required by law, because there is no successor. Nor could the judge force the town to reestablish the freshly abolished department. 

The evidence and records could be given to another police agency. But none wanted them.

"No department was willing to take delivery," Mullins said.

Last week, a judge ordered that the newly fired police chief, Tony Baker, relinquish the locker key to a Virginia law enforcement officer. The deadline was 4 p.m. on May 19. Baker appeared with the key at the appointed time outside Town Hall. After 45 minutes, when no one had arrived to collect the key, Baker and two witnesses left the scene.

During a heated May 20 emergency meeting of the Pound council, local officials announced a temporary fix. The town would bring in an evidence expert from the Fairfax County Police Department in northern Virginia, to do an inventory on the evidence room. Then the town would appoint an appropriate official to commandeer the key.

Although Pound is not a hotbed of crime, the county struggles with drug laboratories and an increase in heroin use, Mullins said. The ongoing criminal cases represent efforts to prosecute lawbreakers.

In larger jurisdictions, chains of custody are treated with gravity, one former security official said.

"The evidence room has to be able to stand on its own," said Dale McElhattan, a retired special agent with the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. "You must have procedural and physical security of everything in that room. If anything fails, the evidence is compromised."

In one instance years ago in Miami, thousands of dollars in cash disappeared along with other items in an evidence locker, McElhattan said. 

"It was a big deal," he said. "A calligrapher came in, the upheaval in the office was amazing." The perpetrator was caught and prosecuted. 

Despite not having a police department, prosecution still is in process for outstanding criminal cases in Pound, Mullins said. The town has appointed a temporary chief to stand guard over the evidence in those cases. Local officials will convene in June to decide whether to reinstate some form of a police department. 

The process has in some ways served as a tutorial.

"A municipality can choose whether to have a police department, but there are certain steps to take when you dissolve the police department," said Mullins, who began his interim post in April. "It's been an eye-opening couple of months."

In the meantime, the local sheriff's office will respond to police calls in Pound.