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Drug Cop May Have Stolen Evidence

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 14, 2006

Berkeley Police Officer Sgt. Cary Kent has not been charged with a crime, but the district attorney’s warrant allowing officers to search his office, locker and computer ties Kent tightly to drugs missing from the department’s evidence vault. 

In January, Chief Douglas Hambleton put Kent, an Administrative Narcotics Unit sergeant, on paid administrative leave and subsequently allowed him to retire.  

Kent, a Berkeley police officer for about 20 years, had worked in the narcotics unit since September 2003. His annual salary was $109, 431. 

Neither the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, whose job would be to charge Kent with criminal activity, nor the Berkeley Police Department, which would arrest him, would speak about the case, each agency referring the Planet to the other for comment. 

His attorney, Harry Stern, did not return calls for comment. 

Most of the known information in the case is found in Search Warrant No. 2006-0098 filed Feb. 15 with Alameda County Superior Court. The warrant details the findings of investigator Mark Scarlett of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, who, with a Berkeley police officer, led the search of Kent’s locker and office. 

In his statement, Scarlett concludes: “I believe, based on the above facts, that Sgt. Kent #S24, while in his capacity as the Administrative Narcotics Unit sergeant, and while working in an office that adjoins the BPD drug vault, took the opportunity to tamper with, and remove, drug evidence scheduled for a ‘drug burn.’” (A drug burn is where drug evidence no longer needed is destroyed.) 

Further, the report says Scarlett believes that Kent: 

• “intentionally opened sealed BPD’s evidence envelopes and then removed some, if not all, of the drug evidence, and then attempted to reseal these evidence envelopes in a manner that would avoid detection …” 

• “intentionally attempted to remain in the capacity of the Administrative Narcotics Unit sergeant until the ‘drug burn’ scheduled for 12 Jan 06 could be completed and with it, any proof of tampering with sealed evidence envelopes destroyed …” 

• could have used the evidence to “be sold, traded, provided to others, or used by [himself] ...” 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz said investigators have to walk a fine line, giving the employee his rights while carrying out a criminal investigation. He commended the police chief for responding quickly to the problem and said the city is bringing in the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), to review and improve BPD procedures. POST would not play a role in investigating the specific incident, he said.  

In the document, Scarlett detailed Kent’s duties including: “processing, tracking and storing all drug evidence submitted by BPD officers, reviewing drug evidence for in-custody cases, determining which cases should be tested by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Crime Lab, insuring that any drug evidence needed for court is tested and returned prior to the court date, processing assets that are seized in SEU [Special Enforcement Unit] cases …. [and] maintaining a liaison between the SEU and the District Attorney’s Office….”  

The report indicates that fellow officers were aware that something was wrong with Kent as early as September 2005. At that time Lt. Al Yuen became Kent’s supervisor when he was reassigned to the Special Enforcement Unit, where the Administrative Narcotics Unit is located. 

Scarlett wrote that “[Yuen] said upon his reassignment, he noticed that Sgt. Kent looked unhealthy, had put on a lot of weight, and that his skin often looked gray or pale. He said Sgt. Kent’s personal hygiene was poor and noticed that he was constantly perspiring, causing him to have to change his clothes in the middle of the day due to a reoccurring strong body odor. Other times, Lt. Yuen said Sgt. Kent could be found wearing the same set of clothes to work that he had been wearing the day before. On some occasions, Sgt. Kent would fall asleep at his desk while Lt. Yuen was speaking to him.”  

Moreover, Kent’s work went unfinished; he wasn’t reporting to work as scheduled and “officers subpoenaed for court were unable to obtain their drug evidence from the drug vault in a timely manner.” 

When asked, Kent blamed his problems on a medical condition, lupus.  

Capt. Bobby Miller told Scarlett that police administration concern led them to compel Kent to see a physician. Kent stalled but when he finally was examined on Dec. 28, he refused to give blood or have an EKG performed. 

“As a result of the examination, Sgt. Kent was deemed unfit for duty as a patrol sergeant,” but was permitted to come back on administrative duty to inventory evidence for the drug burn. (He was to rotate into the patrol division.)  

A preliminary audit by the Berkeley police of the drug evidence in early January determined that at least 15 evidence bags had been tampered with. On Jan. 6 Chief Hambleton placed Kent on administrative leave. Before meeting with the chief, the report says telephone records show that Kent made a call to a “known drug dealer in the city of Berkeley who has also worked as an informant for Sgt. Kent.”  

On Jan. 11, a joint county-Berkeley investigation was launched and showed that at least 181 evidence bags had been tampered with. 

While allegations of theft of drug evidence may seem shocking, it is not an isolated occurrence, said Joseph McNamara, retired 15-year San Jose police chief, now a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.  

“The police property room has been a special problem for a number of years,” McNamara said. “Many departments have suffered the theft of drugs by sworn and non-sworn personnel.” 

This has led to the tightening of procedures in many departments. But still, some officers join drug gangs. And they steal from dealers. In such instances, “the drug dealers can’t go to the nearest police station,” McNamara said. 

There have been instances where honest officers are murdered by criminal police, he said. Police “have a distaste for the officer who blows the whistle.”  

Other evidence is also commonly stolen from property rooms, including firearms, jewelry and cash. “It’s a major management problem,” McNamara said. 

One way investigations are broadened is that when one officer is caught, he is offered a deal: “He goes to prison for 15 years or cooperates, giving evidence against his friends,” McNamara said. 

Some departments test officers for drugs. Some also review officer’s finances, so if an officer bought a $1 million house, for instance, it might look suspicious. 

But “police unions have been pretty successful blocking (drug testing),” McNamara said. “They negotiate working conditions and say that there is no testing of other civil servants.” 

Politics can also play a role, since elected officials want the endorsement of police unions, McNamara said. 

City Manager Kamlarz said the Berkeley City Council rejected drug testing in the ‘80s, though he said federal law mandates drug testing for city employees who drive very large vehicles, such as garbage trucks.