Evidence is a key component of courtroom proceedings. Cases can be won or lost based on how evidence is handled.
The custodians of that evidence – property officers – must be experts in legal statutes pertaining to evidence, have some serious organizational skills, and be very aware of the weight of responsibility they carry.
“This is my niche. … I love this,” said Westminster Police Department Property Officer Kellee Wells, who on Dec. 6 was awarded 2017 Property Officer of the Year for the Orange County regional chapter of the California Association for Property & Evidence. “I really am happy every time I come to work.”
Wells has been with the agency for nearly 19 years – she started as an intern assisting in CSI. After studying abroad for college, she returned to the agency as an intern in the property department. She moved over to the detectives unit as an intern before being hired full time in 2003 in the records department. She returned to property in 2007 and has remained there since.
“No two days are ever the same, which I really dig,” she said.
The term “property” covers a wide range of items, including firearms, narcotics, and evidence containing biological substances like blood. One case required her to package and store about 200 pounds of marijuana. Another involved a John Wayne standee as evidence. But there have also been some disturbing cases, involving fingers, toes, and even a woman’s leg she had to store as evidence.
“That was really hard for me,” she said.
WPD’s Property & Evidence department has two 40-foot-long freezers for evidence that must be kept frozen, blood-drying lockers for blood-soaked evidence to be dried out before storing, a refrigerator locker for urine, blood and sexual assault kits, and rows of lockers for other evidence. The two WPD property officers work closely with the OC Crime Lab for instructions on how to store biological materials.
“Just a different aspect of law enforcement,” she said.
A typical day for Wells involves processing incoming evidence, monitoring existing evidence, releasing property to the public as legal statutes dictate, as well as checking out evidence to detectives while maintaining the chain of custody. She’ll sometimes go out to scenes for collection of large items and has also helped officers on search warrants. As the lead property officer at the agency, she has also testified as an expert witness in court.
And then there’s the disposal of property.
“We do a lot of purging,” she said.
Disposing of property via controlled burns is done once or twice a year for evidence that is no longer legally required. Just recently, the department burned 227-plus pounds of narcotics.
Firearms are also burned.
“We don’t auction,” she said. “We are strictly release to owner or melt them.”
In 2016, Property & Evidence handled 4,830 items, and this year the department is already past 6,000.
It’s a big job, but one Wells handles effectively and always with a smile.
“They’re responsible for a huge amount of paperwork … huge amount of property and evidence,” said Sgt. Kevin MacCormick, who is Wells’ supervisor. “It’s a lot of work, operating behind the scenes.”
It is imperative for the chain of custody of evidence to always be maintained.
“There has to be a paper trail of where all evidence goes,” he said.
If a date or time is missing somewhere in the paperwork, “That can blow an entire case,” he said.
Despite the big responsibility, Wells is always upbeat.
“She does a great job,” MacCormick said. “Always smiling, always laughing. … She makes my job very easy.”
WPD Commander Al Panella said, “She’s just a real pleasure to work with … all of the officers really appreciate her positive, upbeat attitude.
“She always knows the answer. She’s always willing to help.”