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The Billings Police Department needs to clean house.

For the second time in three years, the police department has fired an evidence technician for stealing drugs that were being stored at the department’s evidence building.

The latest employee theft case is more problematic than the first, which didn’t affect any criminal investigations. The theft of oxycodone and other opioid pills reportedly taken by Rawlyn Strizich will result in dismissal of 40 criminal drug cases, according to County Attorney Scott Twito. Pills also are missing from evidence in a dozen other cases that hadn’t yet been filed in District Court, and now won’t be.

Twito and his deputy county attorneys have been scrambling to sort through the list of affected cases compiled by the police department in an audit conducted after Strizich confessed to stealing pills from the drug evidence locker. In each case, the prosecuting attorney is communicating with the defense attorney, Twito said.

The disappearance of evidence also caused more work for the defense attorneys, particularly the Montana Public Defender Office, which represents most felony defendants. Kris Copenhaver, who heads the PDO in Billings, said the drug thefts could affect additional cases in which defendants already have been convicted, if the drug evidence against them turns out to have been missing when they made their guilty pleas.

Altogether, pills are missing from 138 cases, according to Police Chief Rich St. John. But some of those cases involved “found property” turned into the police department, and are not part of any criminal prosecution. Some of the pills had been held at the evidence locker for more than a decade.

There’s been more items of evidence going in than coming out, St. John said. For the past two years, St. John, city administrators and council have been discussing the need for a larger evidence facility.

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The latest drug evidence scandal suggests the police department first needs to sort through what it has and properly (legally) dispose of items it is not required to hold any longer. The drug vault is the place to start.

That housecleaning should be part of a comprehensive effort to have the department adhere to best practices for storing, securing and properly disposing of all types of evidence.

There are recommended standards for managing the mountains of evidence that can accumulate in a busy police department. For example, the International Association for Property and Evidence Inc., based in South Dakota, offers training and accreditation.

The police department needs help to manage its big volume of evidence securely and efficiently. St. John and City Administrator Bruce McCandless should arrange to get an outside evidence expert to assess the police department’s needs and make recommendations. The department should then plan to implement the recommendations that make sense for Billings. The City Council should support this evidence security and management upgrade with the funding needed.

Security and procedural safeguards at the evidence facility also protect honest, hardworking employees. When proper checks are in place, employees can’t be falsely accused.

When Billings was severely shorthanded on police patrols a few years ago, citizens demanded action. The department then was permitted to fill all its open positions.

Most citizens don’t know or care so much about the evidence building, but it is important to the professional and successful operation of our justice system. Let’s get the evidence problems solved. Perhaps in that process the police department will learn it doesn’t need as much new space as it has projected.

-- Billings (Mont.) Gazette