While Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton called Sgt. Cary Kent’s drug evidence theft “a profound violation of public trust,” in an oral report he gave to the Police Review Commission Wednesday, the chief’s accounting left some commissioners and audience members still searching for answers.
Hambleton’s summary, presented to six commissioners and some 20 audience members—mostly Berkeley Copwatch supporters—began with an explanation of why it took several months for officers to recognize Kent’s problem.
In the fall, colleagues noticed the 18-year veteran, “someone all trusted,” appeared in poor health. “What police observed was consistent with a medical condition,” Hambleton said.
At the end of November the department scheduled a medical exam for Kent, who came late to the appointment, rescheduled, finally saw the doctor, but refused blood tests at the time because, Hambleton explained, “he said he was too weak to fast,” a prerequisite for the tests.
Scheduled to transfer out of the narcotics division, Kent said he wanted to move ahead with the drug destruction process—preparing to destroy drug evidence no longer needed to convict suspects—something that “had not been done for several years,” Hambleton said.
“Because of some of the behavior exhibited, I decided I needed to do a full audit [of the drug evidence room],” Hambleton said. He had three officers check the evidence, an audit he admitted had never been done before.
Generally an evidence room audit consists of looking at files to make sure all envelopes are accounted for. “I believe we have never examined every envelope to that degree of scrutiny,” Hambleton said.
The officers found about 25 envelopes opened and resealed, with evidence missing, sometimes replaced by other substances.
Copwatch and others have raised the question of whether other officers—four others had access to the evidence room—tampered with evidence in addition to Kent. Andrea Prichett of Copwatch has filed a formal complaint with the PRC asking for an investigation of the other officers.
“Their access to evidence was fairly limited,” Hambleton said in his report. “They’d go in and out only if [Kent] wasn’t available.”
Once the officers uncovered the tampering with the initial 25 envelopes, Hambleton said he placed Kent on administrative leave, which some days later, at Kent’s request, was changed to medical leave.
Hambleton secured the evidence and discussed the situation with District Attorney Tom Orloff and most the other local police chiefs, as there happened to be a police chief’s conference the following Monday, Jan. 9.
“There was every police chief in Alameda County. I discussed (the case) with everybody in the room,” he said.
Based on their advice, Hambleton set up a joint BPD-Alameda County District Attorney investigation.
It took “weeks,” Hambleton said, to examine the narcotics envelopes and determine that 181 among them had been tampered with. Many envelopes were examined by the crime lab, which determined that Kent’s fingerprints were inside the envelopes where they would have appeared only if he had tampered with them.
Among the 181 envelopes, some involved evidence for cases that had been closed, some had been prepared for sale by undercover narcotics agents, and three involved pending cases. In two of these cases, the individuals pleaded guilty to unrelated charges and in one case getting ready to go to trial, the district attorney dropped all charges, Hambleton said.
Meanwhile other evidence against Kent was growing.
“We knew from his cell phone records that he was in touch with an informant,” Hambleton said. “That informant said Sgt. Kent had been meeting him and purchasing methadone pills.”
Also, a person was arrested who told officers he had been “meeting with Sgt. Kent and Kent had been purchasing heroin from him,” the chief said.
At this point, Kent “was well aware of his legal jeopardy,” Hambleton said. He declined to come in for a criminal interview.
“His attorney told us fairly early on that he was unavailable because he was receiving medical treatment,” which a doctor’s letter confirmed. “It did not say the nature of the treatment—we can all speculate,” Hambleton said.
Subsequently, Hambleton asked Kent to come to an administrative interview. An officer can refuse a criminal interview, but is obligated to respond to an administrative interview. Rather than be interviewed, Kent resigned and retired.
“I can’t stop someone from quitting and retiring,” Hambleton said. “At that point I had no more jurisdiction over him.”
On April 14, Kent turned himself in, was booked at Santa Rita jail, released on his own recognizance and pleaded guilty to charges of grand theft, possession of heroin and possession of methamphetamine.
Commissioners and the public questioned the chief after his report. Commissioner William White wanted to know, given the stressful nature of a police officer’s job, how the department proactively addresses stress.
Hambleton said that during the annual physical, exam alcoholism sometimes shows up. He also monitors complaints against officers—both sustained and not. These officers might be referred to the confidential counseling sessions offered to all city employees, peer counseling or counseling through the city’s mobile counseling team.
“I plan to strengthen the peer counseling program,” Hambleton said.
Commissioner Michael Sherman wanted to know if the police had to face drug testing and the chief answered that, like the rest of the city employees, they did not.
Prichett suggested to the chief that, since Kent was not drug tested, then the department would not know if he was a drug user—he could be a dealer, she said.
And she asked if the drug evidence had been destroyed to which Hambleton responded that it is in tact.
To date, Kent has never been interviewed regarding his actions. Jack Radish, a former Alameda County prosecutor, said there is still an opportunity for the district attorney to interview Kent.
Kent’s plea bargain gave him five years probation, no prison time, but he will be before a judge May 12 to receive a possible one-year jail sentence.
“Certainly a judge would consider [willingness to be interviewed] as part of a mitigated term,” he said.