Turmoil that has plagued the Newport Police Department escalated this week after the release of a Washington County Sheriff’s Office inspection that found substantial problems with evidence, investigations, training and policies.
Inspection of the evidence room revealed that 14 confiscated weapons were missing, sexual assault test results were contaminated, and property relating to 1,138 cases wasn’t tracked, Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton wrote in a scathing report to the Newport city administrator.
“It’s very concerning,” Hutton said Wednesday. “The management of the property room was completely out of whack. We’re not saying people took property or they were doling out property at the back door, but the management of the property room did not exist.”
The matter will be discussed Thursday evening at the City Council meeting.
In recent months, two Newport officers were suspended — one after being caught having sex while on duty in a City Hall office — and a third officer quit after being threatened with suspension.
Then-Police Chief Curtis Montgomery left his job, leading to the city’s decision to contract with the Sheriff’s Office for patrol and police management services.
On Wednesday, City Administrator Deb Hill described Hutton’s report as “pretty damaging,” adding: “There is interest from a number of our council members in having an outside investigator try and give us a better picture of what exactly happened here.”
Hutton’s letter to Hill described “significant failures” in tracking evidence and how investigations were handled in Newport, a city of about 3,500 in south Washington County.
In one case, which Hutton called “extremely alarming,” a child pornography complaint reported in April languished without action for several months, until Washington County investigators discovered it in September and executed search warrants.
Hutton said he wasn’t alleging criminal wrongdoing or implying that the city’s four remaining police officers contributed to the problems. “They’re good officers,” he said.
The person in charge of the property room was Montgomery, who retired as chief in August, the sheriff said. Hutton said the room was unsecured — effectively ruining “chain of custody” of evidence for criminal cases — and treated more as a storage room.
Montgomery didn’t respond to interview requests Wednesday.
Opening the door
The property room concerns arise just as the Newport City Council is weighing what to do about the police department in general.
The recent retirement of Montgomery — unrelated, he has said, to turmoil in the department — led to a city discussion on saving money either by contracting with the Sheriff’s Office to permanently replace the police department, or to merge services with St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove.
On Sept. 28, Newport contracted with the Sheriff’s Office for investigative and patrol services that include one full-time deputy to supplement the city’s remaining officers.
The temporary contract, which expires Dec. 31, includes “management and leadership services.” That’s how the Sheriff’s Office found deficiencies in the property room “when we opened the door,” Hutton said.
Hutton, in his letter to Hill, said deputies removed seven barrels of useless junk from the room, found mold on the shelves and discovered rape kits that weren’t frozen, which is required to “maintain their evidentiary value.”
“There was a freezer found in the room but completely frosted over and not usable,” he wrote.
In another instance, he said, a barrel that contained remnants of a dismantled methamphetamine lab was found in an unsecured storage room with evidence from a recent homicide stacked on top.
“I cannot begin to describe the danger of storing potentially hazardous material in a city facility,” Hutton said.
County Attorney Pete Orput said Wednesday that most of the evidence problems were related to cases now closed and that his prosecutors haven’t reported any problems with current cases — a small number from a small city, he said.
“It’s embarrassing that they found some problems there, but other than that I don’t think it will have legal significance right now because the sheriff found it in time,” Orput said.
Hill said that since she took over as city administrator 2½ years ago, she has written up three officers for suspensions.
“One resigned for personal reasons, so that went away,” she said. “Another went to arbitration and the third we settled ourselves.” The latter two officers wound up with unpaid suspensions, she said.
A 10-day suspension was imposed on Officer Joel Muellner after surveillance cameras installed in two City Hall offices caught him entering Hill’s locked office with the aid of a custodian who later resigned, according to a Nov. 9 report by arbitrator John O’Donnell of the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services. Muellner is a 16-year veteran of the department.
Cameras were installed after Public Works Director Bruce Hansen suspected that money had been stolen from his office after business hours, and Hill became convinced that “objects and files on top of her desk had been moved,” the arbitrator wrote.
A videotape allegedly shows Muellner entering Hansen’s office on three occasions in April 2014, in addition to one unauthorized visit to Hill’s office on June 1 of that year.
Hill asked a Dakota County investigator to look into five officers. The custodian admitted he did look through files on Hill’s desk but said the officer didn’t tell him to do so.
In the arbitration hearing, the officer objected to the surveillance being conducted and felt that a 10-day suspension was “disproportionate and unfair” considering that another officer videotaped in Hansen’s office “having a sexual liaison while on duty received a two-day suspension,” the arbitrator wrote.