SIOUX CITY | Senior Crime Scene Analyst Zac Chwirka said he’s seen pretty much everything imaginable pass through the Sioux City Police Department evidence storage area: chunks of walls, brass knuckles, bloody clothing with bullet and knife holes, carpet, cocaine, old VHS tapes -- even a plastic camel snatched from a nativity set.
Today’s technology means any scrap of evidence found at a crime scene can potentially solve a case. In fact, Sioux City police are collecting so many pieces of evidence -- 6,790 items in 2011 alone -- that the department ran out of storage space a couple of years ago.
“We are literally collecting everything nowadays for evidence that we wouldn’t have looked at before,” Chwirka said. “We were literally stacking boxes on top of boxes and it was becoming harder to find a piece of evidence. We had just physically outgrown our capacity here.”
The department’s solution was to build a new $100,000 storage system in the agency's headquarters, at 601 Douglas St., in 2010. It was paid for with money forfeited from drug cases.
Evidence clerk Jeff Paulsen said the new storage unit uses shelves that slide back and forth on tracks built into the floor. That movement allows shelves to be stacked side by side. The shelves are moved as needed to create a walkway into the desired section.
Since fewer aisles are needed, more space is allocated for shelves, Paulsen said. The old system had 325 shelves; the new one has 850.
“The new shelves more than double our space,” he said. “We have gone from not enough space to having more space than we need.”
The department needs all the extra space it can get since some evidence may be kept in storage for a while, Chwirka said. Evidence in murder cases is kept forever and in serious rape cases, 10 years. The oldest evidence is from the case of Donna Sue Davis, a 22-month-old who went missing and was found dead in 1955. The crime has never been solved.
Evidence has to be stored until the case is dismissed or all avenues for appeal are exhausted.
The average piece of evidence is usually stored for 18 months, but some pieces end up becoming a permanent part of the department.
“Our DARE Corvette was a drug acquisition, and some of our TV monitors are stolen property that was never claimed,” Chwirka said.
The rest of the evidence is auctioned for charity, returned to the rightful owner or incinerated, Paulsen said.
Last year, the department returned, auctioned or purposely destroyed 7,477 pieces of evidence.
“We burned most of it. Even the metal weapons,” Paulsen said. “The heat can take the temper out of the metal and make it useless. That’s our goal -– make sure no one can use it again.”
The department also wants to make sure evidence is destroyed in an environmentally friendly way, Chwirka said.
“Now we use certified EPA incinerators,” Chwirka said. “Before that, we would just go to the landfill and burn the evidence in an open pit. If you got caught downwind, it was as nasty of a cloud of smoke as you can imagine.”